Conspiracy theories ring true in ‘Dark Waters’
Sara Schlecht | Monday, November 25, 2019
“Dark Waters,” the latest from Todd Haynes, is in some sense a typical, albeit slow, legal thriller that takes place less in the courtroom and more on a farm. Where it differs is its unnerving basis in fact. Based on a New York Times Magazine article, the film tells the story of Robert Bilott, played by Mark Ruffalo, a partner at a Cincinnati law firm that represents chemical companies.
When a farmer from small-town West Virginia approaches him with a stack of videotapes that document the mysterious illness and death of a great number of his cattle, Bilott isn’t quite sure what to do. The man swears DuPont’s poor waste disposal practices are behind it, but the little guy isn’t who Bilott’s firm typically represents. When the farmer mentions Bilott’s grandmother by name, the lawyer — somewhat reluctantly — begins looking into the claim.
The claim is alarming — DuPont knowingly polluted the land his cattle graze on and the water they drink. Their teeth are blackened from the water’s high fluoride content, and their organs become enlarged. These grisly images from the videotapes aren’t nearly as ugly as their implications — the West Virginia town’s biggest employer is harming the very people who believe they’re being helped. All of this is defensible, as the government doesn’t know these chemicals are harmful and they are thus unregulated.
In agonizingly slow legal proceedings, and their even slower preparatory stages, further probe DuPont’s products and business practices only bringing about more instability to the town, the law firm and even his family. Years go by, and little seems to come of the work that endlessly consumes Bilott. Even when things begin to look up, there’s still a damper. The cinematography is there to reinforce this just in case viewers think there’s a chance of an ending where all is solved, understood and explained. The problems began decades before Bilott got his hands on the case, and its implications are still relevant today.
The film’s standout performance comes from Bill Camp, who assumes the form of a rough-around-the-edges cattle farmer who’s been pushed around too many times. He’s brash, and deservedly so. No one in his hometown trusts him, and why would they? The maker of household necessities like Teflon is watching out for them.
It’s hard to have any faith in humanity — much less corporate America — throughout much of the film. The dedication of Bilott himself, the subject of the film and the article that inspired it reminds viewers that there are people watching out for others. Sure, the conspiracy theories might be real and the chemicals in our everyday lives might be killing us, but there are people like Robert Bilott in this world.