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Dark Waters (Mark Ruffalo) - DVD Review

Dark Waters

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

A PASSION project for its leading man, Mark Ruffalo, Dark Waters is a sombre, haunting and yet quietly uplifting legal drama inspired by a genuinely horrifying true story that has alarming global resonance.

At first glance, the story – inspired by a New York Times magazine article, entitled The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare, by Nathaniel Rich – would appear to be a very American tale: as a dedicated, everyman lawyer takes on the big company that dumped toxic chemicals in West Virginia for a decade.

But as more about the case gets revealed, the wider the implications become. And it’s this startling truth that enables the film to remain so grimly addictive, before delivering something of a sucker punch, bittersweet finish.

The story focuses on Ohio-based corporate lawyer Rob Bilott (Ruffalo) as he is confronted by an angry West Virginia farmer named Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) over suspicions that his cows are being horribly poisoned because of chemical firm DuPont’s nearby plant.

At first reluctantly, Bilott begins to investigate. But the more he learns, the more committed he becomes to, first, expose the truth and then gain some accountability for it. But big business has a way of grinding the little man down and soon Bilott finds his livelihood, his health and his marriage all threatened by a case that will consume his life for years.

Directed by Todd Haynes (of Carol and Far From Heaven fame), Dark Waters refuses to go for the more obvious big strokes of more common battles against the odds dramas. But it feels more authentic, and more troubling, for it.

Shot in a grey, unflinching style – evoking some of the conspiracy cinema of the ’70s – the film also adopts a more procedural style, painstakingly laying out the facts as they become apparent, yet never losing sight of the human cost of what’s at play.

Ruffalo – a long-time activist away from the screen – is superb in depicting Bilott’s low-key, almost unassuming demeanour. He is, to all intents and purposes, a non-threat to the big business he is going up against. But by using his knowledge of how corporations run against them, and by digging in with an unflinching sense of decency and right and wrong, he never tires, no natter what challenges the case throws at him.

Camp, too, is excellent as Tennant, the angry farmer who kick-starts the case and refuses to let Bilott step away from it, while Anne Hathaway finds room to bring flesh and blood to an otherwise thankless role as Bilott’s long-suffering wife. There’s also solid support from the ever reliable likes of Tim Robbins and Bill Pullman – the latter excelling in a few showboating scene as another lawyer.

But given the resonance of both the case at hand – you’ll never look on anything Teflon-based the same way again – and the broader implications of how corporations and governments knowingly hide the truth to the detriment of the people they’re supposed to be serving, Dark Waters offers both a timely and sobering reminder of the power of big business to deceive in the name of profit, as well as a lasting tribute to the selfless, tireless heroism of the one man prepared to stand up to it, no matter what cost to his own aspirations.

Certificate: 12A
Running time: 2hrs 6mins
UK DVD Release: July 6, 2020