From the Archives: Dark Waters, like its characters, should not be underestimated

From the Archives: Dark Waters, like its characters, should not be underestimated

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

Do you want to feel supremely angry at gigantic corporations while also feeling like you’re doomed to rot away slowly due to invisible chemicals that are currently ripping your insides to shreds? If so, look no further than Dark Waters, a new corporate thriller from chameleonic director Todd Haynes. This is not to be confused with Dark Water, the American remake of a J-Horror film about water that’s haunted or something, nor with Dark Waters, the Lorenzo Lamas thriller about a gigolo who discovers that sharks are being trained to attack people, but I can assure you that this is at least twice as scary.

Mark Ruffalo plays Robert Bilott, the lawyer famous for taking the DuPont chemical company to task over some seriously shady and dangerous dumping practices. When he is approached in his office by an irate cattle farmer, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp, but with an insane pair of eyebrows added), who also happens to be his own mother’s neighbor, Bilott decides to take a look at the man’s claims, namely that a portion of land adjacent to his own was purchased by DuPont with the promise that it would have no ill effects on the farm. The thing is, Wilbur’s cows are all dying, his dog is sick, and his farm is nowhere close to the profitable, healthy venture it once was. Wilbur suspects this is due to run-off from the landfill which occupies DuPont’s slice of real estate.


Even though it represents a conflict of interest for Bilott’s firm, which represents DuPont and other similar companies, he is permitted by his boss (Tim Robbins, excellent and underused) to be “surgical” about taking his case – nothing too deep or defamatory, carried out solely in the name of corporate transparency. The way he sees it, this is all just some bureaucratic oversight that any company would be happy to have brought to their attention. Bilott is of a mind with his employer, but it’s not long before he discovers that what is affecting Wilbur’s farm is something much more dangerous and much more insidious than he ever could have expected.

What begins as a slow burn introduction to the hole Bilott finds himself digging deeper and deeper into, soon devolves into a more episodic story, often jumping years ahead via regular application of title cards. This is a smart structural move in some ways because I brings to light just how long corporate malfeasance can linger before it is noticed…and how much longer it takes to hold a gigantic company accountable for its crimes. Unfortunately, by the time the plot really gets moving, these time jumps undercut just about every opportunity for strong character work to shine through. This is a scripting problem rather than one of acting/directing. I imagine it was a tough call. Since a documentary about this story already exists, the screenwriters had the thankless task of making sure all of the factual information on the case remained intact, while also attempting to affix it to a compelling character study. They do as well as could be expected with this task, but as I mentioned before, the more prominent character beats have a tendency to ring hollow, as we never really get to see their motivation outside of our own assumptive reasoning.


This is most felt in the characterization of Sarah Bilott (Anne Hathaway). A former lawyer herself, Sarah is the definition of an underestimated woman. A greatly appreciated thread which runs through the film is the way that everyone in Robert’s world sees her as “lawyer’s wife” despite the fact that she’s just as successful and career-oriented as her husband. While this is a super cool move on paper, it never gets to gel entirely. Since we only check in with Sarah intermittently, it feels more like lip service to the concept rather than a full exploration of the idea. When Hathaway delivers a killer third act monologue, Hathaway brings the fire and elevates it to something much more effective than it must have been on paper. Had the script been entirely at her back, it could’ve been downright explosive. We also are left mostly in the dark regarding loyalties at Bilott’s firm. Sometimes his boss wants him to pump the brakes on account of their relationship with DuPont. Other times he’s angrily passionate about corporate transparency in the face of poor ethics. Robbins gets us there, much the way Hathaway did, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that something is missing.

 These are small quibbles, of course, as I can’t imagine a thorough ensemble characterization was the primary goal. No, Dark Waters is supposed to celebrate the temerity of a reluctant hero who became an advocate for the little guy, despite being employed by the big guy. At that, Dark Waters succeeds greatly. I was quite struck with its compelling depiction of “big vs. little.” In the paradigm depicted here, corporations view people as dollar signs and data points, while the people see the corporations as immovable objects to which the only response is resignation. This is paralleled in a north/south paradigm that informs the characters. Bilott has family in West Virginia, and the Yankees who he works with won’t let him forget it. At the same time, Bilott is initially happy to ignore the pleas for help from ol’ Wlbur Tennant. He’s just a backwoods hick, what does he know? Well, when it comes to the well-being of his farm, he knows more than anyone. Much in the same way that we underestimate the malevolence of some corporate entities, these same entities underestimate’s Wilbur’s intellect…and Bilott’s tenacity.

In this way Dark Waters is a movie about stereotypes dressed up as an ecological thriller. It’s this double duty of thematic density that defines much of Haynes’ work as a filmmaker who rarely spends too much time working in a certain genre. It’s through this that we can feel Haynes’ personal touch, even within a movie that doesn’t bubble over with auteurial personality.

Dark Waters opens today at the Ritz Five and the AMC Voorhees 16.

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