Film review: ‘DARK WATERS’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Based on real events, legal drama Dark Waters starring Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway and Tim Robbins is a potent and vital (if occasionally clichéd) David and Goliath story that resonates with today’s ever-increasing concerns about the liveability of our environment. The film exposes some of the sinister chemicals that fill the modern world and the powerful corporate forces that put them there.

Here, high-priced corporate lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) unexpectedly becomes the centre of one of the biggest medical test cases in history. Normally, advocating for big companies he finds himself leading the fight to hold chemical giant DuPont liable for contaminating a West Virginia town’s water with a toxic chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA that appears to cause disease and hideous deformities in animals and people. Unnervingly, this is a substance that lurks in many standard household products.

As he disappears down the rabbit hole of this vast and complex case, Robert encounters fierce resistance from DuPont, anger from townspeople who fear losing their jobs at the chemical plant, fury from victims whose reparations have been lost in legal limbo, antipathy from partners at his firm who would rather defend big corporates and resentment from his young family whom he’s neglected while pursuing the case. Much of this is familiar fodder for legal dramas but the importance of the issue at stake, strong cast performances and atmospheric direction from Todd Haynes allow the film to ride over most of the clichés.

Mark Ruffalo is the go-to guy for decent, anxious, self-doubting but dogged investigators, having distinguished himself in similar roles in Zodiac and Spotlight. Here, without actually sacrificing his life, he also conforms to the noble martyr archetype, forging ahead with the case despite his failing health, numerous attempts to derail the case and a chorus of disapproval from all around him. As always, Ruffalo is a likeable and charismatic screen presence and someone we hope triumphs.

Ruffalo’s surrounded by a fine supporting cast with Tim Robbins quirky yet convincing as Bilott’s boss at the legal firm who’s painfully compelled to confront his organisation’s values. Anne Hathaway is also a forceful screen presence here as Bilott’s wife although she is at times simply a cypher to channel family resentment toward the long-suffering lawyer Bilott. As the initial victim of the environmental disaster, farmer Wilbur Tennant, Bill Camp is appropriately angry and despondent although his growling voice at times sounds distractingly like an impersonation of Billy Bob Thornton from Sling Blade.

On an artistic level, Dark Waters isn’t a revelatory piece of cinema but what it says about the precarious relationship between industry, society, politics and the environment is critical and makes it a particularly important film.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2

Genre: Legal drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Todd Haynes.

Release date: 27th Feb 2020.

Running time: 126 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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