In recent decades, particularly since the horror that erupted on 9/11, more than a few dramatic movies have dealt with real-life events and/or social issues in ways that are often so engaging that they supersede most Hollywood blockbusters. Some of the very best deal with the kind of rampant corporate malfeasance that goes on when there are few or no regulations in place to protect the people that these corporations have a tendency to harm with all-too-painful regularity. DARK WATERS is one of those films.
Mark Ruffalo portrays Robert Billott, a Cincinnati-based attorney who is part of a law firm that represents dozens of multi-billion dollar corporations, the biggest not only in America but the world at large as well. But when he hears about a farmer in his own hometown of Parkersburg, West Virginia who has lost nearly two hundred head of cows because they drank from toxically polluted water, he wades into the situation (albeit reluctantly at first) and discovers that one of the companies he has represented in his time, no less than DuPont, is the corporation whose dumping of their toxic waste is responsible for not having only killed livestock, but poisoning and/or severely deforming almost everybody there in Parkersburg, nearly seventy thousand in all. Combing through documents dating all the way back to the 1970s, he learns that some of this poisoning may be connected to a very well-known product, that DuPont created back in the early 1960s (everyone will know all too well what the name of that product is), and is in practically everything in every home in the United States, including pots and pans. The toll it took on him and his family, including the relationship with his wife (portrayed by Anne Hathaway) was almost too much for him (he ended up in the hospital for a time); but he kept on fighting for the people in his town, getting blood samples from everyone tested to be used as evidence of DuPont's corporate malfeasance, which virtually bordered on corporate homicide.
Based on Nathaniel Rich's article "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare" that appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 2016, DARK WATERS is quite well directed by Todd Haynes (I'M NOT THERE; WONDERSTRUCK), and co-written by Matthew Michael Carnahan (LIONS FOR LAMBS; DEEPWATER HORIZON). Ruffalo, who portrayed one of the Boston Globe reporters in the much-acclaimed 2015 drama SPOTLIGHT, ably portrays Billott in a way that gives us a glimpse into his way of thinking that, just by having represented DuPont in his time, he himself may have been somewhat responsible for the years-long poisoning of his own hometown, even if only indirectly. The atmosphere conjured up by Haynes is not too dissimilar to what we saw in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, SPOTLIGHT, or THE POST, one that is decidedly sinister, shadowy and arguably corrupting. Tim Robbins, well known for his highly liberal political beliefs, does a good job of playing Ruffalo's partner in the firm, who is initially extremely reluctant to take his side but then does when the facts about DuPont become too big to ignore. Mare Winningham is also good as one of Parkersburg's many residents who have to face what the town's biggest employer has been doing to then for decades.
While it may seem all too common for movies to take what may seem like potshots at multi-billion dollar conglomerates, when they do the wrong thing (which seems to happen all too frequently, as it did with DuPont), then those wrongs have to have a light shone on them. This is what DARK WATERS does; and as a result, it was one of the best films released in 2019.
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