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Truth vs the corporate machine

Environmental lawyer takes on chemical giant in Dark Waters

Dark Waters (12A)
Running time 2hr 6min
Rating: *****

THE opening of Dark Waters is a carefully constructed call-back to the opening of the infamous blockbuster Jaws. In the mid-70s, a group of teenagers, drunk and partying, hop a fence and decide to go skinny dipping in the water outside the DuPont plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia. The submerged camera moves toward the swimming bodies just like Spielberg’s did. However, it is not a 25-foot shark that is the monster this time, but the unstoppable greed and power of the American corporate machine.

Dark Waters is a depressing film. The colour scheme is deliberately washed out and drab creating a sort of apocalyptic portrait of working-class America. The subject matter is contemporary and shocking and the small amount of positive moments that do arise are consistently overwhelmed by a constant current of horrific injustice. Despite this, however, it is still a great movie and it manages to accurately convey the impact this real-life scandal had on so many lives by following one lawyer’s battle to expose the truth.

The story focuses on environmental defence lawyer Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) who chooses to represent a farmer from Parkersburg (Bill Camp), who claims that his cows have been dying due to chemical dumping being carried out by the giant conglomerate DuPont in a landfill close by. As Bilott looks into the accusations, he uncovers years of corporate corruption and conspiracy, and the true extent of the damage done to the surrounding community. Fighting to reveal the truth and bring those responsible to justice, Bilott risks his job and the safety of himself and his family to do the right thing.

The story unfolds like a well-thought-out investigative thriller, combined with the ups and downs of a courtroom drama. The film is not quick to reveal DuPont’s secrets and its slow build-up of incriminating discoveries makes the revelations all the more disgusting and alarming. The emotional climax is powerfully rewarding and gratifying, but by the time the credits roll you won’t be celebrating. A pervading air of hopelessness hovers over the whole film, a tone created by director Todd Haynes that really must be commended.

The heart of the film lies in Bilott’s journey, an arc that is as absorbing as it is sad. Watching the sprite young lawyer grow old and emotionless through the pressure and anxiety the case has caused him is heart-breaking. Although the role isn’t particularly flashy, Ruffalo’s performance is touchingly human and brilliant. It’s arguably his greatest role, and it gives me hope that Ruffalo will be cast as the lead in films to come.

Anne Hathaway also stars as Bilott’s wife Sarah and she too is fantastic in her role. Sarah’s struggle captures the impact the case has on Rob’s life and the people around him in a grounded and touching way. The rest of the cast also pulls their weight, with Tim Robbins and Bill Pullman both playing small but memorable parts in the larger picture of Ruffalo’s story.
Dark Waters is a sobering, in-your-face picture of the evils of unregulated capitalism. It never shies away from the harsh reality of its sensitive aims which is why it comes off as such an urgent and needed film. While watching I couldn’t help but ponder the events of the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan and despair at the frequency of such criminal tragedies. This film wants to make you think, and all of its parts are successful in doing so.

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