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4th March 2020

Review: Dark Waters

Alongside Mark Ruffalo’s excellent performance, Todd Haynes’ fact-based legal thriller has a powerful and timely ecological message, writes Patrick Jones O’Brien
Review: Dark Waters
Photo: Johannes Plenio @ Pixabay

Based on an article published in the New York Times describing the real Rob Billot’s fight with American chemical giant DuPont, Dark Waters delivers a gripping experience with an incisive ecological call to action and strong performances from its cast. The film’s star-studded cast give excellent performances, particularly Mark Ruffalo as the quiet, diligent protagonist and Bill Camp’s long-suffering West Virginian farmer.

Cinematically, the film’s writing tends to follow predictable paths, unafraid to engage in the occasional cliche. The cast does well enough that most viewers won’t lose interest. They make up for the cliched moments with good emotional performances.

The film is full of the awkward, stressful, and sentimental moments that you find in real life. Ruffalo’s Billot isn’t a sympathetic hero but a real person doing what little he can to save his soul.

There is no ultimate resolution to the contradictions he runs into or the chemical contamination he’s trying to undo because even the film is part of his fight for justice. Although the film loses a bit of steam racing towards this climax the message it gets across sticks with me days after the screening.

“We protect us, we do. Nobody else, not the companies, not the scientists, not the government. Us.”

Visually, the film effectively captures the banal dullness and visible inequality endemic to upper-middle-class life in Appalachia. Every scene is set in boring sterile non-places or the remnants of a more lively, equitable past. These sets add to the sense of the insidious power held by the industrial barons the protagonist is trying to take down.

They magnify the slowly growing awareness of the contamination DuPont knowingly inflicted on the world. Billot’s drive from his cushy suburb and downtown office in Cincinnati to the nearby atrophying industry, toxic slag dumps, and marginal livestock farming that characterizes the lived experience of his West Virginian client is a really good scene. In a few minutes of screen time, with no lines, Todd Haynes communicates so much of the dread, dullness, and near-futility of the extremely important work Billot is doing that makes this movie feel real and powerful.

I had the incredible privilege of seeing Dark Waters at Manchester’s very own HOME, off Whitworth Street in the city centre. After the screening ended we heard from experts the true troubling details about the class of chemicals that Billot litigates over in the film.

These ‘forever chemicals’ do not break down and they everywhere on the planet, not just in the film’s rustbelt setting. They are still being manufactured and spread around our water system. These poorly regulated chemicals are found in disposable food packaging, clothing, cosmetics, and (as the film depicts) nonstick coatings for cookware.

The people behind Dark Waters clearly want to raise awareness of this subject and what we can do to protect ourselves, so, although it may not be the best movie ever made, it is certainly worth your time and attention.


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