Movie Review: Dark Waters

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PG-13 |

Director: Todd Haynes

by Jason Koenigsberg

Dark Waters is a muckraking expose about the way big American corporations are literally willing to kill innocent people if there is a profit. It is the true story of a corporate defense attorney (Mark Ruffalo) who takes on a lawsuit against the Dupont company and discovers a decades long history of pollution and cover ups. At first our hero is unwilling to go against his firm and take on a big chemical company but eventually his reluctance gives way to his conscience and he agrees to help his grandmothers neighbor, and then many other farmers and townspeople that have noticed there is something wrong with their surrounding and it is effecting their health. If this sounds familiar to you, it is. Hotshot lawyers abandoning their professional duties to pursue a righteous cause that involves contaminated drinking water has been done in movies before such as A Civil Action (1998) and Erin Brockovich (2000). Dark Waters is nothing original but manages to bring something new to the table of legal thrillers by making the fight for the little guy appear as it is happening to all of us, which according to the facts presented in this film, affects 99% of our population. 

The opening shot is a dark road that slowly gets brighter with an emphasis on a street light in the upper right corner. Text on the screen reveals that this is West Virginia in 1975. The film jumps then to 1998 Cincinnati where we meet our heroic attorney and he is confronted by a disgruntled farmer, played by Bill Camp. That exchange will alter the course of his career and his life in ways he never imagined. The rest of Dark Waters spans decades up to the present as Mark Ruffalo’s character investigates the case and hurdles roadblock after roadblock to find the truth about toxic chemicals polluting the drinking water and causing abnormalities in humans and livestock and what Dupont actually knew about it. 

Mark Ruffalo in ‘Dark Waters’

Dark Waters is directed by independent filmmaker Todd Haynes and this is his most accessible picture for mainstream audiences. Usually Haynes deals with themes of identity and sexuality with his pictures like Velvet Goldmine (1998), Far From Heaven (2002), and Carol (2015). This is one of the rare times in Haynes’ filmography that one of the main characters is not homosexual or defined by their sexuality. Dark Waters is Haynes’ attempt to send a message about the irresponsibility of the greed that corrupts corporate America and he succeeds, for the most part. Some viewers may find this movie to be just another assembly line product of big corporations hurting middle America and the poor blue collar class fighting back with all the odds stacked up against them and nothing more. It has the obligatory scenes of the lone attorney working long sleepless nights and all the personal and family strife it causes with the routine arguments between him and his wife played by Anne Hathaway. Dark Waters is exactly that but very well done. 

Beneath the surface, this is a solidly crafted and expertly acted film with its heart in the right place. Todd Haynes even has a shot reminiscent of a famous scene in All the Presidents Men (1976) which heavily influenced his directing in this film. Dark Waters contains a lot of low key lighting in scenes that added menace to what could have been mundane office meetings and conversations. The use of framing shots and dark hallways emphasizes the loneliness and despair our characters face. Even though the story spans years as it unfolds on screen Todd Haynes never films scenes in bright sunlight or warm weather. The characters are always standing in the cold, as their breath’s freeze while rain or snow falls down on them from the gray clouds above. The sky is as dark as the water in this picture. Dark Waters is a bleak movie about a David going up against a Goliath and coming out on top. It is so well directed the viewer will not mind that this is something they have seen done numerous times before. 

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