REEL Review – Dark Waters (2020)

Director: Todd Haynes | Runtime: 2hr 6mins | Biography, Drama

Based on a true story, corporate defence attorney Rob Billot (Mark Ruffalo) uses his experience fighting for chemical companies against them, as he uncovers the decades long conspiracy of DuPont de Nemours dumping their waste into a small towns water.

Over the years Todd Haynes has created many unique and interesting films, many of these being detailed character driven stories generally more fantastically or adventurous, however his most recent outing is deeply grounded around a one lawyers incredibly long ordeal fighting against corrupting and cover ups by one of Americans most recognisable chemical companies, DuPont.

Though a film must stand on it’s own two feet sometimes you can’t help but compare it to previous releases that share tonal and narrative similarities, in the case of Dark Waters it is arguably a spiritual relation of Spotlight (2015), Tom McCarthy’s superb Best Picture winner. They both are able to take a step back from the difficult subject matter and remove almost all style to just tell the story, as both are far too troubling already and don’t really require any extra dramatisation. There is a number of areas where Spotlight has the upper hand, but arguably one reason it won Best Picture and Dark Waters likely won’t is a few scenes in which the drama is played up a bit too much; a deposition of DuPont’s current CEO ends with a moment that feels a bit too forced, the delivery of paper records seems a little bit over the top as well. Though only minor, they hamper the narrative a little and sometimes remind us we’re watching the cinematic retelling of these events.

When it comes to the narrative itself writers Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan based the screenplay on New York Times article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”, by Nathan Rich, with some inspiration from other sources on the story including Rob Billot’s own memoir on the events. It opens with Billot working for a firm defending chemical companies, but soon after his instatement of Partner he’s visited by farmers from a small town in West Virginia where he grew up – they asked for his Grandma’s advice, and she told them Rob would help. He visits the farm, finding out a huge chunk of their cattle have died due to strange circumstances; blackened teeth, tumours, bloated organs. DuPont is knowingly poisoning the cows (and maybe the citizens of the town itself), doing so for many years after a creation of a useful chemical making them plenty of profit.

One of the many factors that make Dark Waters succeed as a film is how the science of the chemicals is portrayed to us.

One of the many factors that make Dark Waters succeed as a film is how the science of the chemicals is portrayed to us, though the scenes that explain this are essentially a expositional dump during conversation it feels like that’s how it would have played out – Billot isn’t a chemist, he’s a lawyer, and has to sit down with a chemical expert to explain to him the dangers of C-8/PFAS (the element that effectively poisoned the cattle). That exchange in specific does come across very organically despite the nature of it just unloading information we need to know, it is also info Rob needs to understand so doesn’t feel overly forced.

Though mostly a corporate drama (it’s hard to call it a courtroom drama as there’s very little time spent in court at all, even in the true story) it’s a very relatable story, mostly down to Mark Ruffalo’s performance. He’s very normal and quiet, slumps in the chair most of the time, he’s not a pretty faced lawyer screaming for the truth, which works around the screenplay well – if there wasn’t a excellent relatable central performance, it’d be hard to care about anything going on. Ruffalo is really our conduit into the story, as there’s very little character to anyone around him, emotionally there isn’t anything else to latch onto besides Rob’s wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway), but even then there’s only really one scene that gives her an extra dimension. It’s pretty cathartic for her, but due to how the narrative is written it isn’t much payoff for us as an audience, it comes across almost as an afterthought and doesn’t feel that earned – though the sequences for Rob letting everything release is far more deserved. That being said, those who have their time on screen really make it worth it, the only critique for any performance is that the West Virginian farmers accent is very heavy, and you may need subtitles to get every word.

Though the structure of the story surrounding the side characters is slightly weak, the construction of story and how it unfolds is incredibly smooth, spanning a huge amount of time with ease. The time it takes to get to Rob’s resolution is the same length as some epics, though Dark Waters is far from that, and although the stories outside of Billot attempting to get justice are thin, they strangely aid the main narrative to a digestible and hugely entertaining watch without many lulls of enjoyment. There’s a simple title to show the passing years that is surprisingly effective, at first it happens without paying any notice but by the end it’s wonderfully powerful, it almost comes across as a reflection of Rob’s journey; never changing, always moving forward with a clear objective of why it’s there.

There could have been many different ways of this story coming to the big screen, but Dark Waters is certainly one of the best. It has it’s downfalls, but in a strange way many of those are the reason that the success are so high. In the end you’ll be glad to know the story and will have enjoyed your journey along the way.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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