Dark Waters – Film Review

Dark Waters is a legal thriller that follows the true events based on the New York Times’ article by Nathaniel Rich, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”. Produced by, and starring Mark Ruffalo as Robert Bilott, a relatively green lawyer that just recently made associate at Taft Stettinius & Hollister. Simply known as Taft, they’re a law firm that represents large corporations such as chemical manufacturers. Everything was going seemingly well for Bilott and if he kept his head down and worked hard, he could easily make partner in a few years. However, his life and career take a drastic turn when his hometown comes knocking.

Wilbur Tennant (William Camp), a farmer from Bilott’s hometown of Parkersburg, West Virginia, arrives at Taft with a box of videotapes demanding to speak with Bilott. Tennant, at the recommendation from Bilott’s Grandmother, is seeking council to investigate and prosecute DuPont for poisoning his farm. However, Bilott is actually a corporate defense lawyer, one that would be doing the exact opposite of Tennant’s request. Initially denying to assist Tennant, it is when Tennant reveals that over 190 cows have succumbed to a multitude of unexplained illnesses that Bilott vows to investigate what is killing the Tennant farm.

After seeking approval from his boss and Taft Partner, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), to begin investigations into DuPont’s activities. Bilott meets with DuPont’s attorney Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) to which Donnelly denies any knowledge or specifics to what is happening at the Tennant farm. Bilott is forced to file a small civil suit that will allow him to obtain documents and records from DuPont through legal discovery. It is through this first step that Bilott slowly begins to unravel the horrifying atrocities DuPont has been covering up.

Mark Ruffalo is absolutely brilliant in how he portrays Robert Bilott. Initially at the start of the film, sitting hunched over and looking somewhat shy, Bilott comes across as unworthy amongst the higher-ranking partners of Taft. His body language changes as the character unravels more of the horrors conducted by DuPont, showing more drive and determination in his posture. However, when at home with his wife, Sarah Barlage Bilott (Anne Hathaway), he returns to the hunched over posture, looking dejected and deep in thought. Having also produced the film, Ruffalo clearly had a passion for this story and it shows as he poured his heart and soul into this film.

Anne Hathaway portrays a bit of a nothing character as Robert’s wife. However, I believe this may be done on purpose. It shows the audience that Bilott is so focused on the case that everything else outside of it takes a backseat, thus putting Anne Hathaway into the background. Tim Robbins as the cautious Taft Partner that takes a huge risk in putting his faith into Robert Bilott, and Victor Garber as the overly defensive, arrogant DuPont lawyer, are equally memorable and fantastic in their respective roles. Another notable mention is William Camp as Wilbur Tennant. It could not have been easy to portray someone so passionate yet also defeated at the same time.

Dark Waters is an unbelievable true story and the actions by DuPont will shock you to the core. I found myself  in disbelief throughout the entirety of this film. I was drawn into this mystery right from the start when Tennant dumped the box of tapes onto Bilott’s desk. Whilst I was aware of the general context of the film, that PFOA commonly found in non-stick cookware is highly toxic, I was not aware of the extent that DuPont went to in an effort to cover it up. Even more shocking is that Robert Bilott is still representing those affected by DuPont’s actions to this day, and it isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Whilst the main purpose of this film was to tell a story, another thing this film highlights is that most of the chemicals these companies produced and continue to manufacture today, remain unregulated and that is truly horrifying.

As a bit of a public service announcement and to reduce any fear to your health this film may cause. PFOA is no longer used in any cooking products and has was banned in the US in 2014. After seeing this film, much of the discussion afterwards was about going home and throwing everything out. If your cookware is PFOA Free, you don’t need to do anything and it is perfectly safe to use. If you are unsure, consult the manufacturer.

I am thankful to Mark Ruffalo for bringing this story to the big screen. It reminded me a lot of the Academy Award winning film, Erin Brockovich. Others at the screening mentioned it reminded them of Matt Damon’s 2012 film, Promised Land, and even Ruffalo’s other film, Spotlight. If you enjoyed any of these films, then Dark Waters is definitely the film for you.

Dark Waters opens in Australian cinemas on the 5th of March.

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