Dark Waters

by Toby Woollaston

dwVerdict: The murky waters of environmental law turn crystal clear in this efficiently told whistleblowing biopic.

How do you spice up the mundane subject of environmental law? Throw in a couple of A-listers, shoot them with provocative mood filters and set your story to the angsty backdrop of our environmentally frail times. Dark Waters is all this and more—a film that through its lid-lifting on the DuPont scandal has tapped directly into the zeitgeist of today’s environmentally savvy public.

Cut from the same cloth as movies like Erin Brockovich, The Insider, and more recently The Report, Dark Waters offers more of the same David vs Goliath whistleblowing narrative that, while not breaking new cinematic ground, is a compelling enough drama to have you questioning the safety of the water we drink.

Robert Bilott (played by a suitably driven, yet affable, Mark Ruffalo) is a corporate lawyer who defends chemical companies, but when a farmer thrusts into his reluctant hands compelling evidence for gross negligence of one of the world’s largest chemical companies, it causes him to sit up and take notice. The ensuing investigation into the chemical giant DuPont, who knowingly released dangerous chemicals into the public’s water supply, snakes its way down a river of shadowy conspiracies and paranoid side-glances.

Is this movie formulaic? You bet. But it’s a formula that works and director Todd Haynes (Carol, I’m Not There) has meticulously worked his craft with a laser-like (but very predictable) precision. From the do-I-turn-the-key-for-fear-of-the-car-exploding cinematic flash-points of tension to the seamless montages of Bilott pouring over legal documents, Dark Waters flows before your eyes ushering us from one complex plot-point to the next with effortless ease. In fact, this film almost feels too efficient and calculated for its own good. Which is why the more organic and messy relationships, such as Robert’s marriage to Sarah (Hathaway), feel disappointingly undercooked.

Despite this, Dark Waters still operates as a compelling and well-told whistleblowing yarn that explains the complex machinations of the DuPont case with aplomb. I will never look at my glass of water the same.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.