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TRCH Classic Thriller Season

Film Review: Dark Waters

8 March 20 words: Hollie Anderson

A blood boiling drama that sadly leaves much of the story in the dark…

Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins
Running time: 126 minutes

Dark Waters is based on the true story of Rob Bilott: an attorney who revealed how a chemical company was, through decades of wilful negligence, polluting waters in Parkersburg, West Virginia. 

The film pulls us through a legal battle that lasted twenty years, with truths and discoveries racking up at an alarming rate. It becomes clear that DuPont - a trusted company responsible for creating the household product Teflon – was essentially killing the local residents who placed their trust in them. 

As it’s based on a New York Times article entitled "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare", from the off we expect Bilott to have a passionate, dogged sense of righteousness. Strangely, that isn’t what we find. 

The film’s hero just lacks character entirely. Rob Bilott (played by Mark Ruffalo) clearly has dedication, determination and heart, but most of the time he seems mute and expressionless. A medical issue, two crying scenes and a penchant for fruity cocktails are all we have to give him some depth of character. It’s left to Anne Hathaway (playing Bilott’s wife) to help the plot scrape its way through as she vaguely and tearfully drops details of Rob’s personal life. We’re left feeling as though we have missed some bigger story. 

There are several characters that should have been used more. Bilott’s boss Tom Terp (Bill Robbins) gives a fantastic speech about moral obligations, but this brief. His courtroom support seem to be quirky, sassy individuals, but I couldn’t tell you anything about them. Bill Camp’s performance as Wilbur Tennant brilliantly injects outbursts of anger and mistrust, but despite triggering the initial investigation he is still portrayed as a poor a disrespected farmer.

Cleverly, the film makes us feel like we’re making each discovery for ourselves

The cameo roles by people affected by the true story was a beautiful touch – especially that of Bucky Bailey, who was born with one nostril, a keyhole pupil and serrated eyelid after his mother worked for DuPont during pregnancy. 

We end up relying on the facts and stats to engage us. Watching a room full of dusty boxes become piles of evidence, hearing crackled phone calls; cleverly, the film makes us feel like we’re making each discovery for ourselves. The production also subtly reminds us that time is dragging on, as phones, cars and interiors are used in a way that prompts nostalgia and illustrates the personal cost the case has for the Bilott family.

Visually, the whole film feels as though a dark cloud has passed over it. For the majority of the time the state of West Virginia is pictured as bleak, poor and harsh. Surely this must not have always been the case? We aren’t given a reason to love the place as much as Bilott does. 

Nit-picking aside, this is a great film with a huge message and it deserves to be celebrated. Yes, the characters are two-dimensional, but the horrific truth behind DuPont’s activity will still leave you full of rage and enlightenment as you leave the cinema. 

Did you know? When the film was released in the US, DuPont’s stock price dropped by 7.15 points

Dark Waters is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 12 March