Release Date(s)2019 (March 3, 2020)
Studio(s)Participant/Killer Films/Amblin Partners/Focus Features (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: C+
Dark Waters, based on a true story, pits the “little guy” against a huge corporation to expose its wrongdoing and hold it liable for heinous policies affecting not one man, but a whole community.
West Virginia farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) is convinced that the DuPont Corporation has poisoned his cattle, his land, and possibly his family. He travels to a Cincinnati law firm to ask Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) to represent him. Coincidentally, DuPont is one of the firm’s major clients and Robert has just been made partner. Only because Wilbur was sent by Robert’s grandmother, his neighbor in the same depressed West Virginia town where Robert grew up, does the high-powered corporate lawyer talk to the scruffy farmer.
Initially he rebuffs Wilbur, but the farmer leaves a box of videotapes that eventually pique his interest. He visits Wilbur, who shows him examples of birth defects in his cattle and a graveyard full of dead cows. A bit of poking around reveals that DuPont has secretly been dumping, on land that abuts Wilbur’s, manufacturing waste from a product—known commercially as Teflon—that has had adverse health effects on those involved in its production.
Robert asks senior partner Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) for permission to represent Wilbur. Sharing Robert’s moral outrage, Terp agrees, but as DuPont uses its power, influence, and money to drag the proceedings out, some of the other partners protest. Robert gains some ground with the case, mostly because of his perseverance, but it takes a toll on his own health, his career, and his marriage.
Ruffalo, with a light West Virginia accent, plays Robert as the unlikely champion of a community that looks to DuPont for its livelihood. Much of his performance lies in his reactions as he listens to locals, experts, and executives of DuPont. His pensive expression suggests that he is processing what he hears and connecting dots to get to the bottom of what has caused the death of Wilbur’s 191 cows.
Director Todd Haynes (Safe, Far From Heaven) treats Dark Waters not only as an environmental story but also as a compelling David vs. Goliath thriller. As Robert unearths more and more damaging evidence, unusual things being to happen. A local couple’s home is set on fire after they bring Robert information that will accelerate proceedings against DuPont. Robert’s wife (Anne Hathaway) confronts him about the toll the case is taking on him and on their marriage. At one point, Robert enters his car and is about to turn the ignition key when he pauses, wondering whether a bomb was planted.
Casting is strong. Victor Garber is unctuous as arrogant DuPont executive Phil Donnelly. Hathaway is fine as Robert’s wife Sarah, but the role is so undistinguished that it could have been played by anyone. Mare Winningham plays a local resident who brings an important piece of information to Robert. Director Haynes makes what must have been tedious hours of looking at documents seem like virtual heroism as Robert sifts through carton after carton received from DuPont in “discovery.”
DuPont isn’t the sole villain in the film. The EPA, government oversight, and average folks who depend on these companies for employment are shown to be see-no-evil accomplices. Haynes doesn’t sugarcoat the story with platitudes and happy endings. We do see some final on-screen information about how the lawsuit played out, but the message that stands out is how a gigantic American company can destroy human lives with near impunity.
Reminiscent of Erin Brockovich in its tale of companies poisoning natural resources in pursuit of profits, Dark Waters, rated PG-13, shows the painstaking way a legal case gets assembled, piece by piece, until it becomes an unstoppable force.
The Blu-ray release of Dark Waters from Universal, featuring 1080p resolution, is presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2.39:1. The color palette for most of the film is desaturated. There are very few bold colors, even in the dresses of the women in banquet scenes. The opening scene, of teenagers swimming at night, casts a bluish tone. Bilott’s house features warmer colors—browns, creams, and yellows—with recessed ceiling bulbs and a dining room fixture as light sources. The muted color is most pronounced in the scenes set on Wilbur’s farm, which is seen only on overcast days or in rain or snow. This creates a depressing mood and emphasizes the devastation that pollution is wreaking on his family and his livestock. A scene of Bilott getting into his car in a deserted garage produces a thriller-like feel, especially when he hesitates before turning the ignition key. Throughout the film, there are close-ups of the many documents Bilott examines to get to the truth.
The soundtrack is English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Alternate French and Spanish soundtracks are available, also in 5.1 DTS-HD. English, French, and Spanish subtitle options are included. Dialogue is clear and precise in this dialogue-heavy drama. Bill Camp speaks in a heavy West Virginia accent and Mark Ruffalo has a lighter version of the same accent. In a scene in which townspeople line up to be tested, numerous voices are blended to create a low-level din. Sound throughout is at a normal level, whether in a law firm’s board room, a home, or a courtroom. There are hardly any scenes in which sound mixing is especially pronounced.
Bonus materials on the 2-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack include 3 behind-the-scenes featurettes. A Digital code is included on a paper insert within the package.
Uncovering Dark Waters – Director Todd Haynes, star Mark Ruffalo, and other cast and crew members discuss the genesis of the film. Ruffalo read the story in New York magazine and was approached by his agent to play Rob Bilott, the actual lawyer involved in the case. Haynes wanted to create different textures. Cincinnati was used because it has a small-town quality but is large enough to once have been home to corporations. There is a contrast between those in the blue-collar town of Petersburg and the corporate world. Many of the actual people involved in the lawsuit are featured in small roles. Several behind-the-scenes moments capture Haynes directing and a number of different scenes being filmed.
The Cost of Being a Hero – The nature of what constitutes a hero is explored. A hero faces opposition and alienation. A cause starts with a single individual willing to take on a challenge. Many look the other way because to question could jeopardize their careers and/or ways of life. The film underscores the power of the whistleblower. A hero often suffers alienation from family, powerful people, and rich corporations. Ruffalo spent time with Bilott to fully understand how he was impacted by the case over 20 years. “The power of the individual to effect massive change” is the film’s theme. Though the husband and wife struggle with pressures brought on by the lawsuit, they persevere to do the right thing. Bilott comments that our “legal system has flaws but it’s still the best legal system in the world.” “We need each other to make the world a better place.”
The Real People – Director Todd Haynes used many of the actual people involved in the case against DuPont. Their cameos are shown along with interviews in which several of them discuss feeling like celebrities and comment that Dark Waters will make viewers more aware of what’s going on around them.
– Dennis Seuling