Dark Waters
3 stars
Director: Todd Haynes
Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Bill Camp
Duration: 126 mins
Class: 12A
KRS Releasing Ltd

film not reviewed

Dark Waters tells the shocking and heroic story of one man’s quest for environmental justice.

Acclaimed film-maker Todd Haynes, director of such cinematic gems such as 2002’s Far from Heaven and 2015’s Carol, tells a whistleblower’s story based on a 2016 New York Times Magazine article, ‘The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare’ by Nathaniel Rich. In it, Rich chronicled the one-man crusade that sought justice for a community exposed for decades to toxins in its own backyard.

Corporate environmental defence attorney Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) has just become partner at his prestigious Cincinnati firm, in large part due to his work defending some of the biggest names in Big Chem. When Wilbur Tennant and his brother Jim, two small-town West Virginia farmers, ask for his help investigating the local chemical plant for purportedly killing their livestock, Bilott balks, explaining that he represents chemical companies, not plaintiffs.

Yet, something about their story stays with Rob, especially when he realises one of his fondest summers as a boy was spent at a neighbouring farm.

During a drive to the area, Rob’s observations don’t quite align with his memories – there is something beneath the surface of this corner of Hill Country. He also realises that nearly everyone in the community owes much to the local chemical plant in Parkersburg, operated by DuPont. The Tennants believe that whatever DuPont is dumping in their landfill is polluting their creek and has wiped out their herd of nearly 200 cattle.

A real hero’s journey. Plus, it is just great storytelling- Mark Ruffalo

Supported by his supervising partner in the firm, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), Bilott uses his intimate understanding of how chemical companies work. He files a complaint, undertaking a targeted suit that will uncover just what is happening in Parkersburg.

Thousands of personnel hours and years later, Bilott finds that his obsession to ferret out the truth has not only jeopardised his family – particularly his relationship with his wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway), but also his reputation, his health and his livelihood. Just how much is he, and by association, those around him, prepared to lose to bring the truth to light? What is the price for justice?

For Ruffalo, reading Rich’s article set off personal alarm bells. As both an artist and a globally-minded environmentalist, Ruffalo felt that a film about Bilott’s struggles could represent a convergence of his dedication to his craft and to the environment.

A long-time campaigner on climate change and advocate for increasing renewable energy, Ruffalo co-founded Water Defence in March 2011 to raise awareness about energy extraction impact on water and the public health; the following year, he helped launch The Solutions Project as part of his mission to share science, business and culture that demonstrates the feasibility of renewable energy.

After some initial e-mail exchanges, Ruffalo phoned Bilott with a pointed inquiry.

 “I said that I felt like there was a part of the story that wasn’t fully explained in this article,” Ruffalo recalls. “What I wanted to know from Rob was, was it more difficult for you trying to do this inside a corporate defence law firm that only represents chemical companies? Rob said, ‘Listen, I’ll tell you everything.’ That was what I really needed to move forward.

“I just think to be a hero, you are going to face a lot of opposition, and from everywhere, sometimes,” Ruffalo continues. “That is a real hero’s journey. Plus, it is just great storytelling.

“The more you can layer in those complexities, just the better story it is, and the greater achievement it is when our hero does what he set out to do. At the outset, Rob really believes that corporations are people and in the concept of their self-governance. He reasons that this must be some simple oversight. What ends up happening is he uncovers this contamination and cover-up, perpetrated by DuPont and spanning 40 years.”

The level of authenticity required for Dark Waters was something new for director Haynes, and not something he took lightly.

“That was the biggest challenge from the get-go – how to be true to the facts, honour the specificity and uniqueness of these characters and their experiences, but make it accessible to an audience, make it something that an audience can follow and become engrossed by,” he says. 

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