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Dark Waters Film Review: Personal Local Drama

Mark Ruffalo holds a piece of paper in the film Dark Waters

Todd Haynes’ environmental drama Dark Waters is efficient, slick, and features great performances, but it may not separate itself from a packed field of great thrillers.

Movies can sometimes a hit a little too close to home. In the case of Todd Haynes’ 2019 drama, Dark Waters, I mean that quite literally. I grew up only a short drive away from Parkersburg, WV, where much of the film’s main tension lies. I know people involved in the conflict in various ways. So, it may be hard for me to review Dark Waters as objectively as possible. It’s an engaging enough thriller, though I can’t help but feel that my close attachment to this true story makes the film adaptation more interesting to me than it actually is.

Dark Waters follows Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) and his fight against DuPont, a chemical manufacturing corporation that appears to be devastating the small West Virginia town by dumping chemicals into the nearby Ohio River and its soil. Bilotti, who has ties to the small town, goes to great length to expose the company’s cover-up, at an enormous personal, physical, and psychological cost to himself and those around him.

Any movie Haynes directs is sure to be competent on a technical level, and Dark Waters is no exception. The performances are stellar across the board. Ruffalo embodies his character in a way that makes him easy to root for, while Anne Hathaway channels an impeccable motherly instinct in the form of Bilott’s wife, Sarah. Bill Camp, however, might give the film’s best performance. His turn as Wilbur Tennant, a Parkersburg man who first approaches Bilott about DuPont, is transformative and touching. Tim Robbins effectively portrays Bilott’s boss, Tom Terp. Along with the great performances, the film’s underrated cinematography shrouds each shot in a dark haze, sometimes blue, sometimes green, matching the dark tone of the story and its subject matter. Haynes’ efficiency behind the camera moves the story forward even as its pacing issues begin to take hold in the film’s back half.

Bill Camp and Mark Ruffalo in front of a truck in the film Dark Waters
Bill Camp and Mark Ruffalo in the film Dark Waters (Focus Features)

Legal dramas, especially ones based on real life events, can be hard to execute. Dark Waters’ pacing falters after a great sequence where Bilott scrummages through mountains of paperwork sent by DuPont, trying to conceal evidence of its wrongdoing. (This scene also reveals Haynes mastery over scenes that would feel boring in the hands of any other director.) After this moment, which comes fairly early, there are little-to-no memorable moments, leaving the audience with the impression that the story may have been stretched too thin.

Haynes, however, keeps a few cinematic tricks up his sleeves for each of his films, and Dark Waters is no exception. The director cast real-life victims of the environmental crisis portrayed in the film. William “Bucky” Bailey plays himself, a man who suffered birth defects as a result of a chemical used in Teflon products made by DuPont. Darlene and Joe Kiger, a local couple also affected by DuPont’s actions, also appear in the film as extras (their characters are portrayed by professional actors). Seeing those local people remind Bilott what he is fighting for throughout the runtime, while the choice of casting their real-life counterparts adds an extra layer of dramatic weight for the viewer.

A question arises when I watch Dark Waters. “Would I like this film if I didn’t have such a close connection to this story?” While this is an obviously impossible question to answer, I cannot help but think the movie does not do enough to separate itself from a myriad of other dramas of its ilk. It’s technically sound, expertly crafted, and can fruitfully stir the anger and frustration it’s going for, but it could easily be forgotten by audience members without that personal connection.

The film ends with a rendition of “I Won’t Back Down,” sung in this iteration by Johnny Cash. Dark Waters portrays Bilott with an undying persistence to do the right thing. Haynes made this ultimately successful drama with that same persistence. He wanted to alert viewers to a tragedy that affected thousands of people. For those like me, who grew up hearing about DuPont, Teflon, and the potential dangers of the Ohio River, this film will strike an emotional chord. For the general public, Dark Waters might work well enough, but may not have the same staying power.

Get it on Apple TV

Dark Waters is now available to watch on digital and on demand.

Dark Waters: Trailer (Focus Features)

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