I have been on a run of really depressing movies. From Queen & Slim to The Report on Amazon Prime to The Irishman on Netflix, I’ve been stuck on some real downers. Dark Waters is not bucking that trend. It shares a lot of similarities with The Report, the biggest one being that despite attempts to frame its conclusion as a triumph, there is a palpable feeling that the situation is irrevocably messed up and there is nothing anyone can do about it.
Dark Waters follows Robert Bilott, a corporate defense attorney, who takes a small case for a family friend, a poor West Virginia farmer whose cattle appear to have been killed by chemicals leaked by the DuPont corporation. As he digs into, it becomes clear that the DuPont’s misdeeds go far beyond inadvertently killing some cows. Soon, the case has consumed Robert’s life and the scope keeps growing. He is one man against one of the most powerful corporations in existence. But he won’t stop.
The cast is impeccable. Mark Ruffalo stars as Bilott, seeming to shrink into his suits. He does not look like a man of great fortitude. Anne Hathaway plays is long suffering wife, supremely overqualified for a largely thankless role. Tim Robbins, Victor Garber, William Jackson Harper, and Bill Paxton play other lawyers who drift in and out of the movie. Tim Robbins has the biggest role as a senior partner at Bilott’s law firm, who largely backs him despite the damage it does to the firm’s reputation.
Dark Waters is largely a movie about exhausting, draining, tedious process of legal work. At first, Bilott is just looking into hazardous chemical stored in the landfill next to his clients farm. Then he realizes that the harm is not caused by a classified hazardous chemical. Then he discovers that the harm is not limited to cattle, but also affects people.Then he learns that DuPont knew how harmful the chemical was. He started with a very small case, but he keeps learning worse and worse information and has to keep digging to get justice for his client. The more he finds, the greater the resistance from DuPont grows. The greater the mountain of paperwork he has to sift through to find the answer. And DuPont plays dirty, reneging on deals, stealing evidence and obfuscating issues.
The set up isn’t exactly a recipe for tension or drama, but Dark Waters maintains plenty of both as it goes. There is an overall oppressive feeling to the movie, as though the rug could be pulled out from under our hero at any moment, and from any part of his life. The case puts stress on his family, on his work relationships, on his health, on his very safety. At any time any of those could collapse. Or he could just lose the case. He navigates it all, keeping the pressure on DuPont but just being indomitable and unflappable.
In the end, Bilott triumphs, though the consequences faced by DuPont for knowingly poisoning thousands of people is shockingly light. That is where the downer part of the ending comes in. Through extraordinary effort and more than a little bit of luck, Bilott was able to get at least justice from DuPont, but this is just one case and the deck is stacked against the people in favor of companies like DuPont. Even when the good guys win, the win does not seem to be enough to stop those like DuPont from just doing it again. That is no fault of Dark Waters, which is a well executed legal drama.