Movie Review – Dark Waters (2019)
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This is probably the most important film of the year. It’s as important as both Erin Brockovich (2000) and Spotlight (2015) were. It’s not being treated as such and is being mostly overlooked, but it’s as if director Todd Haynes took both of those Oscar-winning films and combined them for this look at another example of corporate malfeasance or malpractice. Maybe it’s not cool or sexy enough.
Erin Brockovich was anchored with a very sexy performance or a performance that utilized its actor’s sex appeal. Spotlight was literally about sex, sexual abuse and veritable rape. That’s not appealing in the same way. It’s more provocative, while being about titillating subject matter. This film, written by Matthew Michael Carnahan (Deepwater Horizon and Lions for Lambs) and Mario Correa, based on an article by Nathaniel Rich, published in The New York Times Magazine, doesn’t have an actor utilizing his sex appeal or titillating subject matter to thrust upon us. It won’t draw eye-balls in that way. It doesn’t take away the film’s importance, however.
Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight and Foxcatcher) stars as Robert Bilott, a corporate attorney in Cincinnati, Ohio. He lives in the nice suburbs with his wife and children. His job, though, is to represent large corporations like chemical companies. He’s originally from Parkersburg, West Virginia, which is three hours east of Cincinnati by car. It’s where his family originates and it’s where he was raised. It’s also where his grandmother lives. One day, a neighbor of his grandmother comes to visit Robert. That neighbor is a farmer who thinks that a chemical company is ruining the neighbor’s farm, so he asks Robert to help figure out what’s going on and stop the chemical company from doing anymore damage. Robert is reluctant because it would be the inverse or the contradiction of what his role is at his law firm. But once he visits the farm and sees what’s happening, he realizes he has to get involved and fight till the end.
Bill Camp (Joker and The Kitchen) co-stars as Wilbur Tennant, the farmer from West Virginia whose land is being ruined by the chemical company and who pushes Robert to do something about it. He’s a typical, grizzled and tough, rural type. He’s a burly and no-nonsense man who is literally a straight shooter, doing what he can to protect his farm and recognizes the big corporation walking all over him or literally doing him and his family dirty. He doesn’t want money or some big payday. That’s not his motivation. He just wants the truth to be told and for it to be addressed properly.
Ruffalo was nominated for his role in Spotlight, which is not that far flung from what he’s doing here. His character isn’t a reporter. He’s a lawyer, but a lot of the work he does here is similar to Spotlight, which had people going through tons of paperwork, trying to discover or uncover the truth about what a large organization was doing, not only in terms of the physical harm to people but also the hiding of that harm through insidious ways. Like Erin Brockovich, it comes down to a corporation polluting the drinking water of people and being responsible for their illnesses. What’s scary is that unlike Erin Brockovich, the poisoning of human beings isn’t just limited to one area in one state. Yes, it starts in one town in West Virginia, but Robert learns there are bigger and wider implications affecting everyone in the country.
Anne Hathaway (Les Misérables and Brokeback Mountain) also co-stars as Sarah Bilott, the wife of Robert. Yet, she’s more than the stereotypical wife in films like this. She’s a former lawyer who left her job to be a mother. She still, however, has to face sexism from men who don’t consider her as good a lawyer as men are. She’s not directly involved in the action or the investigation, but she represents how her husband’s case can be scary to those who aren’t from West Virginia. She’s frustrated as Robert’s case becomes encompassing and obsessive, but she stands up for him when he needs it, proving what a strong and loving presence she is.
The chemical company in question is Dupont, a corporation established in Delaware that polluted many waterways including the Chesapeake Bay. Besides its chemicals having nationwide impact to potentially harm all Americans, there are other implications that we learn from this film. We see and feel the need for government regulation or better oversight of corporations to keep them from giving us all cancer or other illnesses. This film is an indictment of corporate influence over politics and the loopholes corporations have to get around regulations and oversight. This film stresses the importance for all of us to be vigilant because these corporations claim to care but only see people as “receptors,” not even real.
Through Ruffalo’s performance though, we feel him trying to push for those corporations to recognize people as people and as real things that are being harmed. He’s a dedicated and passionate advocate. This film is also a low-key push for the importance of proper medical care for people and science. The recent Lifetime movie Flint (2017) did a similarly good job. We’ve seen these corporations do it over and over, poison people and pollute the Earth over and over. It needs to stop and films like this are important to maintain awareness and to fire people up about it.
Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 6 mins.