Dark Waters

Posted on December 5, 2019 at 5:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content, some disturbing images and strong language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Theme of toxic poisoning of a community with some grisly and graphic images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 6, 2019

Mark Ruffalo stars as “Robert Bilott” in director Todd Haynes’ DARK WATERS, a Focus Features release. Credit : Mary Cybulski / Focus Features Copyright 2019
Imagine “Erin Brockovich” without the sizzle of the outspoken, miniskirted single mom with the biker boyfriend, and you’ve got “Dark Waters,” with Mark Ruffalo (who also produced) as real-life lawyer Rob Bilott, a lawyer who represented corporate polluters until a West Virginia farmer showed him what the chemicals were doing to his community. The movie is based on a New York Times article called The Lawyer Who Became Dupont’s Worst Nightmare by Nathanial Rich.

Bilott is pretty much the opposite of Erin Brockovich, a quiet, dedicated family man, so stable he is almost inert, who is comfortable representing corporations and thinks — not entirely wrongly — that he is one of the good guys because he is representing them in negotiations with EPA to use taxpayer-funded Superfund money to clean up toxic chemicals that are leeching into the ground and water.

After eight years of working on those cases, he gets a surprise visit from his grandmother’s neighbor, a farmer named Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), who speaks with a near-indecipherable West Virginia accent but who is very upset because his animals have weirdly mutated organs and keep dying early. Oh, and his brother died, too, Bilott turns him down, but then, because of his grandmother, he agrees to look into it. He thinks it will be one and done. He’ll write a letter, work his contacts, and get some money to compensate Tennant, then go back to his nice partners and his nice office and his nice life, including Anne Hathaway as his wife who has the usual thankless task for a wife in these films of telling him he is working too hard and neglecting his family and his health.

I love movies about courageous lawyers fighting The Man; movies like that are part of the reason I became a lawyer in the first place. But it is no secret that while fiery courtroom battles are wonderfully dramatic, especially if there are many opportunities to yell “I object!” and even more especially if the cross-examination is so devastating that the bad guy actually confesses. But law — even in court — is not actually like that, and in translating this story to the screen, they made a few mistakes.

First, the legal issues themselves are complicated and arcane. Unless you are a lawyer you don’t want to and don’t need to know why Bilott ends up representing different clients about halfway through, but for the purposes of dramatic storytelling it is confusing and distracting. The same goes for why the chemical in question, used in the creation of the wildly popular no-stick Teflon cookware, was not covered by EPA regulations concerning its production and disposal.

Most significantly, though, Ruffalo and director Todd Haynes have stripped away a significant proportion of what makes their work distinctive in what looks like a mistaken opinion that style is not serious. Haynes, whose early film “Safe” was a provocative, stylish, and very serious drama about chemical exposure, should know that what he can bring to a film like this will only make it more compelling. The same goes for Ruffalo, who has turned the pilot light down low on his considerable charm as a performer. That may work in court; it is not effective on screen.

This is an important story and worth seeing. Its most powerful moment comes near the end, not in the courtroom but in a gas station (check the credits for that actor’s name.) More of that and the movie could have and should have been better.

Parents should know that this film has some very disturbing images showing the consequences of exposure to toxic chemicals, including mutations of humans and animals and some strong language.

Family discussion: What made Bilott change his mind about helping Tennant? Whose job is it to prevent this kind of damage and why wasn’t it done?

If you like this, try: “Erin Brockovich,” “A Civil Action,” and “Promised Land”

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