Review: ‘Dark Waters’ goes deep in portraying a whistleblower as environmental hero

If the story of “Dark Waters” sounds familiar, to a certain extent it is. But this film is not business as usual, with the presence of director Todd Haynes and star Mark Ruffalo the key reasons why.

On the most basic level “Dark Waters” is a whistleblower story, the latest in a genre of doing-the-right-thing scenarios that includes such popular films as “Erin Brockovich,” “The Insider” and even “All the President’s Men.”

Inspired by an article in the New York Times Magazine, “Dark Waters” could have simply followed the template of the story’s upbeat headline, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” telling the story of attorney Robert Bilott, who worked for more than 20 years to expose decades of heedless environmental contamination dreadful enough to cost the chemical giant $670 million in fines.

Ruffalo, an actor with an activist bent, read that story and decided to star in a movie version, becoming lead producer and hiring Haynes, a director whose 1995 “Safe” was ecologically prescient, and a filmmaker who never does anything the expected way.

Working with screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, Haynes has constructed a dark, edgy film, disturbing and meant to be, a real-life horror show that details the impunity with which DuPont put profits above the known harm its chemicals were causing.

“Dark Waters” also focuses on the wrenching, disconcerting consequences of doing the right thing, on the number of grinding years of unrelenting, life-changing pressure — more than 20 in this case — that were needed to even begin to make a difference.


One of the many ironies in this story is that Bilott was in almost all ways the least likely guy to become the environmental hero he turned out to be.

Yes, Bilott (played by Ruffalo) was an attorney, but the Cincinnati firm he worked for was old-school conservative to the core. Recently made a partner, his idea of a good time was attending the annual Ohio Chemical Alliance dinner and his area of specialization was defending big corporations rather than suing them.

That all began to change on a day in 1998 when gruff and furious Wilbur Tennant (a brilliant Bill Camp), a farmer from Parkersburg, W.V., who was acquainted with Bilott’s beloved grandmother, made the trip to Cincinnati and insisted, in an accent so thick as to be almost indecipherable, “I want a lawyer.”

Anne Hathaway in "Dark Waters."
(Mary Cybulski / Focus Features)

Though he’s a new father and his wife, Sarah (an expert Anne Hathaway), is not sure why he’s even bothering, Bilott feels compelled to take the drive to Parkersburg and see what Tennant’s complaint is all about.

He gets more than he bargained for. A man on fire with the justness of his cause and livid that no one is paying attention, Tennant has both physical evidence and videotape recordings of the horrors that have been visited on his herd of cattle, 190 of which he has buried.

Tennant feels that the damage is caused by the neighboring Dry Run Landfill, where the Washington Works factory operated by mighty DuPont deposits its chemical waste. Moved by what he’s seen, Bilott says he will try to get some answers.

Before making what he views as a friendly colleague-to-colleague request to a pal at DuPont, Bilott runs his plan past his superior, the buttoned down Tom Terp (Tim Robbins, expert as well).

“It’s just a small matter for a family friend,” Bilott says softly, and Terp tells him to keep his inquiry “surgical.” Neither man has any idea of what they, and their firm, are getting into, though when a DuPont functionary darkly warns Bilott that “you’re flushing your career down the toilet,” he starts to get the idea.

That’s because, as the lawyer chillingly finds out, a chemical variously known as PFOA or C8 and essential to the manufacture of Teflon, is being released into the Parkersburg water supply and causing widespread damage.

Because of legal loopholes, this chemical is outside of governmental knowledge and regulation and DuPont, not eager to jeopardize a billion dollar a year product, refuses to do anything about it.

Not even an initially patient wife who comes to angrily say “I hope you know what you’re doing” understands why Bilott perseveres, but the combination of Ruffalo’s quietly intense performance and Haynes’ direction illuminates both what drives him and what the cost can be.

An actor whose presence is always welcome, Ruffalo is splendid at projecting the unusual combination of bred-in-the-bone idealism with mulish stubbornness that made it impossible for Bilott to walk away.

This despite so much personal and professional pressure (including disbelief and ostracism from locals who insist that DuPont is “good people”) that the ordeal makes him fear he is losing both his health and his mind. Seeing “Dark Waters” makes you wonder not why more people don’t call corporations to account, but why anyone does. And makes us all the more grateful when they do.

'Dark Waters'

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

Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes

Playing: Arclight Hollywood; the Landmark, West Los Angeles