Climate change is a hot topic (pardon the pun) these days. Despite overwhelming evidence, it remains a divisive topic. Whether people believe the earth is heating up naturally or due to manmade causes, that we as a species have poisoned this planet shouldn’t be up for debate. Chemical companies have introduced toxic substances to water supplies that has not only damaged wildlife, it has also caused immense harm to ourselves. Justice is difficult to obtain but it didn’t stop lawyer Robert Bilott from waging war on the DuPont company, a crusade that lasted over twenty years and dubbed him their “worst nightmare” by the New York Times. The accompanying article by Nathaniel Rich is the primary basis for Dark Waters.
Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is a corporate lawyer working for law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister. His work involves helping chemical companies pollute within the confines of the law. He is visited by Wilbur Tenant, a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia who believes that DuPont are responsible for the death of his cattle and more other unexplained fatalities. He agrees to visit the farm as his grandmother still lives in the area not holding out much hope he’ll be of use. Instead, what he finds shocks him and sets him on a collision course with one of the world’s biggest and most powerful corporations.
Dark Waters is a legal drama with much of the battle being done out of the courtroom. Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan have produced a tight script that doesn’t skip the on the technicalities, mercifully it doesn’t weigh down the pace with jargon. It’s a tense thriller with high stakes. It’s easy to root for the underdog in Bilott as he battles the almost supervillain like DuPont and their attorney Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber), a tangible manifestation of the corporate identity. Garber is solid bad guy who’s manner is grating like nails on a chalkboard. He’s the embodiment of all that is wrong while Ruffalo’s Bilott is likeable and ethical. Anne Hathaway plays a subdued yet strong supporting role as Sarah Bilott. Her screen time is limited and although she seems underutilised, her star power adds to the casting.
Todd Haynes may present a simplified tale of good and evil but it makes for an effective movie and judging by the source material, it’s not a misrepresentation of the truth. There are class elements at play as Bilott is called a “hick” with the rural Parkersburg viewed by the corporate elite as collateral damage to their bottom end. As the film reaches its third act the umbrella of despair hangs low as the mood turns to doom and gloom. The tensions ripples under the skin of the script yet it never feels like it’s going to explode, instead it simmers away as the walls close in on our hero.
The villain of the piece is all too real in this David v Goliath battle. Bilott’s quest for justice is a cautionary tale. DuPont rules with the power of fear born of money. As events escalate, the film hesitates on loosening its grip on you just as DuPont kept a shadowy hand on the shoulder of our hero and the community. If it doesn’t make you angry, it should.