If this film doesn’t enrage or terrify you, I cannot imagine what will. With the environmental impacts of human activity under constant (and much-needed) scrutiny, Dark Waters tells the harrowing true story of how unfettered greed led to one of the biggest environmental and health crises in history.
The film chronicles corporate attorney Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) as he discovers the cover-up of an entire town (and ultimately, the world) effectively being poisoned by chemical giant DuPont. Their release of sludge full of a highly toxic chemical known as PFOA into the town’s drinking water resulted in animal deaths, children with birth defects, and demonstrably caused a variety of cancers and other diseases. As the substance stays in the human body essentially permanently, it is infamously known as a “forever chemical”.
Those facts are infuriating, and my brief summary absolutely doesn’t do the situation justice. Thankfully, Dark Waters does so, and in spades. It tells its decades-long story with care, detail, and necessary urgency. The script wisely focuses on the human aspects of the story, be it the victims, Bilott himself and Bilott’s wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway). Providing the right amount of background about the substance, general viewers can understand the gravity of the situation without an overwhelming amount of jargon. At the centre of the engrossing legal and scientific drama, Ruffalo gives a powerhouse performance as Bilott. His gradual obsession and dedication to helping the victims, and bringing DuPont to justice, is inspiring and heartbreaking. This is also perfectly manifested in Anne Hathaway’s Sarah Bilott. While she’s at first seemingly merely ‘the hero’s wife at home’, her character’s importance cannot be overstated. Through her eyes we see how someone’s effective isolation and obsession can affect their loved ones. She demonstrates the necessity of interpersonal relationships and support in times of need, giving a powerful performance full of humanity and strength.
Visually, the film’s presentation is very subtle. Rather than being unnecessarily stylistic, its focus on the everyday world (whether it be the town’s neighbourhoods, cityscapes, or home interiors) keeps the story consistently grounded and relatable. Yet, shots of other company logos and establishments such as restaurant chains take on a new meaning. Here, it’s as if director Todd Haynes is hinting that any of the corporations on-screen could be hiding secrets just as egregious as DuPont, while we obliviously stand by and do nothing.
I can confidently say that any viewer would more than understand and appreciate the subject matter. As for flaws, a handful of scenes felt slightly on-the-nose with how they conveyed ‘this is the good guy’ and ‘this is the bad guy’. In the grand scheme of things though, these are nitpicks that do not detract from the overall experience.
Dark Waters tells a story of the two extremes of humanity; the greedy, soulless, power-wielding ones that display an utter lack of morals or regard for human life, and the dedicated, morally righteous and kind-hearted individuals who are willing to stand up to them, no matter the sacrifice. At once both horrifying and inspiring, it shines a light on a humanitarian threat that demands all of our attention, and is one of the rare films that absolutely everyone needs to see.
Illustration: Frannie Wise