Dark Waters (aka The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Dark Waters follows in a long series of legal dramas about a truth-seeker trying to bring justice to an unjust world. In this case, Mark Ruffalo plays Ohio attorney Robert Billott in a battle against the DuPont company for their dumping of toxic waste into West Virginia. Todd Haynes directs and gives us more or less what the audience seeks out of such a tale. It’s intriguing, frustrating, agonizing, and ultimately leaves us tired of the corrupt system, almost as savaged as Ruffalo by the time the credits roll.
Billot is established as an attorney for a firm that represents DuPont. He doesn’t think much of it until he starts helping out on a farm in West Virginia and notices something odd. The cows are getting worse as they grow sick and die. A DuPont poisoning seems to be the culprit given the toxic water supply. Noticing is easy but proving this case is a whole other level of seeking justice.
Ruffalo very much plays the underdog in this story, constantly feeling low and lacking in enough power to bring about real change in the world. He even seems to be depicted as being below others in how the film is shot, giving a grand sense of scale to the mountain his character has to conquer. Compare his stature to that of his boss played by Tim Robbins who seems to cast a dark shadow over him, representing the towering nature of business being too much for one man to topple.
Dark Waters takes its sweet time but slowly envelopes the audience by digging deeper into the more startling information behind DuPont’s chemical dumping. It’s not just that it drives cows to the brink of death but that it brings about a much harmful effect for humans. The toxic chemicals enter the body and remain there, leading to some horrifying implications. It’s all the more depressing knowing this is true, the material ripped from a New York Times story.
It’s for this reason that it’s a bit more depressing to note that Dark Waters doesn’t exactly tread into the deep end of this genre of filmmaking. We’ve seen films like this before but as time has shown, it takes little more a mildly rousing investigation liberally grazed with true corruption. The film was executive produced by Ruffalo who is himself an environmental activist. He delivers a fine performance and brings across many of these troubling issues with great passion, much akin to other fervent legal dramas that come branded with a harrowing and insightful monologue. But it never quite breaks out of that shell of being compelling enough to be entertaining, yet routine enough to not inspire as largely as it should.
Dark Waters clearly has a great rage bubbling under its surface and while some of it rises, most of it feels held back in a rather by-the-numbers legal drama. The film is perhaps more unique as a commentary on the monotony of it all, how the fight for what’s right is a long road filled with paperwork and paranoia. It’s an intriguing commentary that I can only hope more audiences will notice past the fine performances.