“The system is rigged!”– Mark Ruffalo as Robert Bilott
By Cain Dennis
Todd Haynes’ “Dark Waters” is absolutely confounding. On one hand, it tells an infuriating true story about chemical titan Dupont knowingly poisoning people for profit, and it shows us corporate defense attorney Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) on his years-long courtroom battle against Dupont after he befriends a West Virginia farmer who’s land and cattle have been poisoned, destroying his livelihood. On the other hand, this film is a tonally confused, boring experience that does little to engage viewers aside from that learning about the crimes perpetrated by Dupont is eye-opening and absolutely frustrating.
I had no expectations set for this film, and I was mostly unfamiliar with the story that it is based on, but even having not expected much from this movie, I was still disappointed and surprised by how much this very “Anti-corporate” film contradicts itself at nearly every turn. For a movie about fighting corporate interests, it has the most product placement that I have seen in a film this year. Just off the top of my head, I remember seeing signs and logos for Shell, BP and Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen. Two pivotal scenes of the film even take place inside Benihana and Arby’s. Seriously. The idea that a film standing against a company’s terrible negligence while simultaneously featuring what feels like a paid instance of product placement for BP, who has contributed to ruining the ecosystem in the Gulf Coast is just completely tone-deaf. The argument could be made that it’s incidental/unintended but if I were making a film that fights for justice against a company poisoning the environment, I surely would not have left a shot of a BP gas station in the final cut.
Most of “Dark Waters” comes across as very static, but there are a couple scenes that stick out in my mind where they crank up the intensity to a comical level. There’s a scene at a corporate gathering where one of Dupont’s corporate leaders gets angry at Ruffalo’s character and a scene in which we get a very quick shot from the point of view of an enraged, sick cow. You can tell that the filmmakers realized that there were very few moments of excitement, so they took the camera movement to an extreme for just a couple seconds when they had an opportunity to put an engaging moment in. Being taken out of the slow-paced flow of this film to be treated to a couple seconds of ridiculous camera shaking adds absolutely nothing of value, but was actually one of the most entertaining parts due to how funny I found it.
The performances in this film are serviceable, Mark Ruffalo is trying his best, but he’s given little to do aside from sift through paperwork and frown. Anne Hathaway gets an unearned monologue about how she is not “Just the wife” when the film presents her as nothing more than a background character. My favorite performance is probably Tim Robbins as Ruffalo’s boss, he gets the best speech in the film, when he’s working to convince his firm’s partners to join in the fight against Dupont.
“Dark Waters” attempts to tell an important story, but does so in just about the most uninteresting way it possibly could have. Dupont knowing poisoned people, including their own employees and hid the evidence that it ever happened. They deserve a much more damning takedown than what this film offers. Courtroom dramas don’t have to be boring, but this one was. I really wouldn’t recommend this film to anyone. If you are really curious about the true story behind it, you should just save your time and money by giving it a Google search and reading about it.
I’m going to give “Dark Waters” a