Dark Waters Review: The ugly face of corporate corruption

This Todd Haynes adaptation of the New York Times long read captures the true essence of corporate authority and the heroic effort of one man against the system.

man showing kid's picture dark waters
Mark Ruffalo plays Rob Billot, an attorney who uncovers an egregious truth, spiralling him into a fight against corporate authority. // Credits: Rotten Tomatoes

Dark Waters is a gripping drama that unravels a horrific story of corporate corruption triggering adverse health effects in thousands of people in and around West Virginia, USA.

Based on the New York Times article by Nathaniel Rich, the film undeniably plants in each viewer a seed of flaming outrage and disgust towards ‘the antagonist’ – DuPont, the mega-corporation that also developed some of the world’s first chlorofluorocarbons (banned in the present).

Maybe a few would question the mellow and subtle simplicity with which Todd Haynes portrays the story. He is well known for his unique and often controversial opinions in terms of self-identity and sexuality. Surprisingly he effectively captures the immovable dedication and tireless effort that is required to fight the unrepentant private conglomerate.

Unlike in Erin Brockovich, where the pivotal character is the ordinary man/woman who fights against personal injustice and dominates as the protagonist, the ordinary man in Dark Waters is Wilbur Tenant (played by Bill Camp), a West Virginia farmer who does not hog the limelight. The strangely plain but morally driven lawyer Rob Billot (Mark Ruffalo) plays the central character.

men carrying tapes on dark waters
Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) and Jim Tennant (Jim Azelvandre) didn’t actually walk into Rob Billot’s firm office. In reality, he had called him on the telephone. // Credits: Rotten Tomatoes

While working for a high-profile law firm in Ohio, Billot is approached by an exasperated farmer, an acquaintance of his grandmother from his hometown of Parkersburg, with a life-changing case. He is initially resistant to take up the case because it was the exact opposite of the type of work he did at his firm.

All of Wilbur’s cows were dying, and he believed it to be due to the nearby chemical plant run by DuPont a multimillion-dollar organization. Despite his initial reluctance, sentimentality gets the better of Billot as he begins to try and explore the situation.

To start with, Billot repeatedly watched Wilbur’s narrated tapes of the horrific bodies of the dead animals on his farm. He was peeking into the results of the underlying sinister agenda.

His transition from an advocate who worked with rich chemical corporations helping them navigate the law, to the lawyer that fights the very same darkness he served, was not a smooth one.

The movie then dives into a whirlpool of incriminating evidence that leads to a truth that was hidden from the American society. A truth about purposeful negligence and insatiable corporate greed.

woman hugging man dark waters
Portraying a rather undeveloped character, Anne Hathaway often seems to try a little too much. // Credits: IMDb

Mario Correa’s and Micheal Carnahan’s adaptation of the iconic article is quite impressive. The unsaturated dialogues along with Haynes’ uncharacteristic straightforward approach to a real-life story, caters nicely to the expectations of the audience.

There is an inexplicable pleasure in watching Ruffalo meander the different phases of the more than decade long crusade against an established mega power in the community. Unlike most smooth-talking lawyers that we have become accustomed to in modern film screens, Ruffalo’s character reeks of integrity and pure determination within his rather short and stocky frame.

The majority of the other characters take after Ruffalo’s solidity, especially Bill Camp, who plays the disgruntled farmer and Tim Robbins as Ruffalo’s sympathetic but stern senior partner.

Anne Hathaway is Billot’s trusted wife who portrays an almost stereotypical American housewife in the ’90s despite giving us a peek into her character (a lawyer who gave up her career to raise a family). Honestly, her talent is quite misused and often her scenes felt a tad over-dramatized to satisfy the need for an inexistent balance.

This generic but simultaneously outrageous true story of ethical horrors is no Oscar winner, but will assuredly be remembered for its accurate portrayal of corporate corruption bowing down to the solo effort of a determined lawyer.

Dark Waters is not just any movie, it is a visual representation of the appalling acts committed and then covered up by DuPont. Today, they have spent more than half a billion remunerating the affected population and continues to fight against the thousands more who have also been affected for generations to come.

Despite the little inconsistencies in production, the effectiveness of the script and quality of acting leaves the viewer with a few lasting emotions. This will include at least a tinge of flaming disappointment in a bunch of monstrous businessmen and, a ceratin hope in humanity as well.

A definite watch.

RATING: 4 out of 5

NOTE: The movie released in the UK on February 28, 2020.