“DARK WATERS” COULD HAVE BEEN BETTER
The whole thing feels so contrived, so idealized and awkward, it’s almost laughable.
The thing about biopics/ historical dramas is, if the story doesn’t offer nuance and a full picture of the person in focus, it ends up feeling hollow. It makes it so that the information breezes past you like the news cycle. So, Dark Waters, a 2019 drama thriller about how a resilient lawyer manages to bring down an American household brand, feels a bit insipid.
Representing the true story of environmental lawyer Rob Bilott, Mark Ruffalo portrays the corporate lawyer as a gentle do-gooder who takes on the chemical behemoth DuPont. In Dark Waters, Bilott is transformed by a visit from west Virginian farmer, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), who got Bilott’s contact through his grandmother. Tennant’s cows were dying and he believed that there was a connection between their horrible health conditions and the recent development of a DuPont operation site not too far from his farm. The film follows Bilott as he attempts to hold DuPont to account for their negligence in protecting a lie that harms the public. Bilott’s journey is a long one; it takes him years to see any result and so, the film acts as a sort of episodic archive of every significant hallmark of his journey.
Directed by Todd Haynes, Dark Waters is mostly a mediocre film. For the most part, the moving moments and sentimental undertones of the film are a result of its grave topic. Yet, there is an air of disingenuity that underlines the film because of how dramatized Bilott’s journey is. Based off Nathaniel Rich’s New York Times article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” the film fails to mirror Rich’s achievement and instead, replaces his biting storytelling with a sort of tepid biopic. While Rich’s article is written is such a way that the kicker for the entire saga, slowly unfolds, building suspense and intrigue while maintaining sharpness, and vivid descriptions to enliven the story, the movie leans on Ruffalo’s emotional performances to carry the story.
The key to success here though would have been in showing more of the victim’s perspective instead of focusing on Bilott. Actually, in Rich’s article, Bilott is used as a link between different details in the story but not as the sole focus, managing to also give voice to the other characters who are involved with the issue. But in Dark Waters, ironically, it feels stiffened of excitement and perspective. Within moments where Bilott is centered, the actual main characters—the victims of DuPont—mostly present as supportive characters and since Bilott’s outlook isn’t exactly textured with conflict and thrill, the energy of the film falls flat.
The summation of the softened development of the screen play and the heavy meditation on Bilott’s distress at different turns in the film, have the effect of making the story unassuming, which belies the weight and damage of DuPont’s duplicity. The thing is, Dark Waters had a fantastic opportunity to shine by simply focusing more on the people who were affected by DuPont’s continued lie but it could have also highlighted the other gripping themes of elitism and respectability politics which had nearly everyone faulter to social pressures and the status quo.
The relationship between corporate white America and the adherence to passive aggressive respectability is injuring throughout the film yet it’s largely, overlooked. It’s clear that Bilott’s position on the scandal, though incredibly kind, went against the grain of the typical expectations of his law firm. Yet, the lingering absurdity, that had Bilott pressured to drop the case in the film feels largely unnoticed in favor of a more rudimentary narrative, one where he’s represented as a hero against corporate villains. But actually, if we examine the tone of hypocrisy/ passive aggressiveness that forced Bilott to immediately approach representatives of DuPont with a timid, cozy advance, we would find our grit.
There is a possibility that the plot is softened on purpose to make it more of a martyr story. Rob Bilott is presented as a harmless moral professional who just happens to be a lawyer and any trace of human flaws is essentially non-existent except when his long-suffering wife, Sarah Barlage Bilott (Anne Hathaway) is there with an admonishment. Often, her remarks feel so random and striking, it feels as though her presence is meant to illustrate the sense that it was Bilott against the world and that no one supported him. Actually, Ruffalo’s sweet-natured countenance serves to relax the more, conservative sharp-edged appearance of a corporate tiger like Bilott, who looks basically like what you would imagine of a consummate high-power lawyer. But because of the over dramatization of his quiet goodness (a trait which is also afforded some members of Bilott’s firm) it all presents as a farse.
Look, what the lawyers at Taft did was amazing; Rob Bilott is fantastic. But Dark Waters doesn’t inspire nearly the amount of emotional pull it’s owed because of all the corny moments in the film. Take for instance, the minute when Bilott pitches the case to his firm. His managing partner Tom (Tim Robbins), offers a passionate speech in favor of Bilott’s offer saying, “these people have crossed the line, to hell with them!” The whole thing feels so contrived, so idealized and awkward, it’s almost laughable. Later in the film, Wilbur Tennant’s blunt remark to Bilott finally addresses this strange affinity to applaud basic decency when he says, “you want a prize, some medal because once if your life you took the side of the little guy? Sorry no prize.”
Although Dark Waters is enlightening, something about the way Haynes sensationalizes Bilott’s benevolence, takes away from the very insidious nature of the methods of some American institutions which, in practice, is often perceived as normal. The Flint Michigan water crisis is one example of a real-life horror story that is still prevailing today, with so little oversight from the government, it’s managed to affected families and communities for generations. Films like Dark Waters, that distill this catastrophic and damaging truth to one about how a crusader saves the day, downplay the outrageous and bleak nature of their reality.