Grade: A-/B+
Rated PG-13
Investigative legal drama

Dark Waters sounds like the title of a missing person case or murder mystery, and quite literally that’s what this legal drama turns out to be. It’s also based on a true story.

Mark Ruffalo plays Robert Bilott, who in 1998 was a newly minted partner at a Cincinnati, Ohio law firm that specialized in defending chemical companies. But one day a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia brings a box of VHS tapes to his office. Bilott is ready to brush him off until the man says he knows Bilott’s grandmother. As a result, Billot drives to Parkersburg to investigate. There he sees a lot of unsettling things, ranging from blackened teeth to a mass burial site for cattle, close to 200 of which died after suddenly acting crazy. The farmer shows him more. Convinced there’s something going on, Bilott agrees to look into it.

This film traces his investigation into DuPont’s use of the dangerous chemical they labeled C-8 (used in Teflon) and the backlash Bilott faced, both personally and professionally. On the home front, for example, he had only been married for several years to his wife Sarah (Jane Hathaway) when he took the case, and at one point in the film, after his obsession starts to rival Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale, we see how close to the breaking point everyone is. It was no better for those in Parkersburg who came forward to testify against DuPont—the biggest employer and community benefactor in the area.

Dark Waters does a nice job of showing the dilemma that communities face: Can you really bit the hand that feeds you? Can you really choose between jobs, or health? If you do anything to sabotage the corporation, you also sabotage the community or your own family. Yet, one worker in the film tells how his brother got hired at DuPont and died two years later of testicular cancer, leaving behind three small boys. How important was his job? This film tells the stories of the victims of corporate greed and the heavier prices that they all pay.

Bilott’s investigation and court case would drag on for 20 years, something that’s emphasized in the film by timeline subtitles. What took so long? What other complications arose? What did DuPont do to cover up or fight back? Well, that’s what Bilott wrote about in his 2019 book, Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer’s Twenty-Year Battle Against DuPont, which, along with a New York Times exposé, became the basis for this film from director Todd Haynes (Carol, Far from Heaven).

Unlike most legal thrillers, this one takes place mostly outside the courtroom, and there’s nothing glamorous about the investigation. Bilott goes through boxes and boxes and boxes of papers, trying to organize them and make sense of them all so that he can build a case. The low-key Everyman also interviews a lot of people. It’s lonely work, and the film is structured so that it plays out like a smoldering fire that slowly fans a mounting anger in viewers, as it does Bilott’s own frustration.

The performances are solid, with Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, and Bill Camp highly believable as the principle players, actual Parkersburg residents adding authenticity to those roles, and Hathaway making the most of every onscreen opportunity. Yet the story rightly takes center stage, and it’s a story that parents really ought to watch with their older children—especially in an election year. The dilemma that the citizens of Parkersburg faced is one that many Americans must reconcile, as DuPont isn’t the only corporation whose practices may be putting their workers and communities at risk. Can anything be done? Isn’t there a safer middle ground? Does activism always come at a high price? Though some children will find the pace a little slow, one thing is certain: Dark Waters is sure to prompt discussion.

Entire family: No (young ones will be bored)
Run time: 126 min., Color
Studio/distributor: Universal
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Amazon link

Rated PG-13 for thematic content, some disturbing images, and strong language:

Language: 4/10—Fairly mild and infrequent, with Two f-bombs and some minor swearwords

Sex: 1/10—Opening dark scene shows teens skinny dipping with vague and brief exposure

Violence: 5/10—In an “Old Yeller” moment a farmer has to shoot a cow that attacks him and put her down; graphic shots of animal body parts

Adult situations: 4/10—Characters nurse glasses of wine and cocktails in social settings; more disturbing are the situations where characters feel threatened by others because of their actions

Takeaway: This is a movie that people need to see—seriously