• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Dark Waters: A damning account of DuPont's water pollution

 

DARK WATERS
directed by Todd Haynes

Far From Heaven director Todd Haynes' latest is a gripping story of corporate greed.

West Virginia, 1975. Young people are skinny-dipping in a river, oblivious to the filthy film on its surface. A boatload of shady-looking officials shout at them as they carry on hosing away the pollution under cover of night. The oily substance is soon revealed to be the by-product of chemical company DuPont’s illegal dumping in the state’s waterways, where it is being drunk by Wilbur Tennant’s cows.

As Tennant (a storming performance by Bill Camp) watches his animals die gruesome deaths, he harangues corporate lawyer Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), who, ironically, has built his career on defending such companies, to take up the case.

As if there weren’t enough troubles in the world, this horrifying true story, based on several investigative articles and Bilott’s memoir, portrays how the US chemical giant has contributed to an increasingly toxic planet for more than half a century.

It takes a good screenplay to put corporate law on the silver screen and make it interesting – file boxes of documentary evidence aren’t as inherently exciting as witness-stand testimony – but thrillers such as Michael Clayton and The Insider included enough personal peril to enthral and appal the viewer. Erin Brockovich had Julia Roberts’ Oscar-winning turn and a memorably snappy script. In comparison, Dark Waters is a low-key affair, centred on Ruffalo’s quiet but captivating performance as the gently principled Bilott. The well-written film still gets its point across and serves up plenty to ponder.

It also boasts an impressive supporting cast, which includes Anne Hathaway as Bilott’s wife (slightly feistier than the usual obligatory long-suffering spouse), Tim Robbins’ law-firm boss and William Jackson Harper (Chidi from The Good Place, sadly underused).

Director Todd Haynes, whose award-winning Far from Heaven was a colour-drenched delight, paints this film in murky greys and browns underscored by rain and snow, which befits the increasingly grim subject matter. From Haynes eclectic body of work, Dark Waters is more akin in style and substance to his Safe, in which Julianne Moore played a suburban housewife who falls ill from multiple-chemical sensitivity.

Rather than rely on the flashy, here Haynes simply lets the terrible facts speak for themselves. It’s not a fun watch, but it is an engrossing indictment of commercial greed and disregard for human life.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★1/2

Video: Universal Pictures NZ

This article was first published in the March 21, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

For more on the political, cultural and literary life of the country, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and sign up to our weekly newsletter.