As you know, many films have claim to be “based on a true story” or “inspired by a true story,” but Hollywood has a tendency to mix things up to make things more dramatic. However, in the case of Focus Feature’s latest release, Dark Waters, it appears that the story presented is pretty close to what happened, at least Matthew Phelan from Slate thinks so. He performed a bunch of interviews with the real people portrayed in the film and most of it checks out. That only makes this chilling tale a lot scarier.
Directed by Todd Haynes with a script written by Maio Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, Dark Waters is largely based Nathaniel Rich’s article, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” which was published in The New York Times Magazine in 2016. This lawyer is Rob Bilott portrayed in the film by Mark “The Hulk” Ruffalo. Although the corporate environmental defense attorney has just made partner at his Cincinnati law firm, Bilott is a lot more down-to-earth than his fellow lawyers which sometimes gets him labeled as a hick.
Up until this point, Bilott has made a name for himself defending big chemical companies but things change when two farmers from West Virginia show up at his office and refuse to leave until they see him. They are acquaintances of Bilott’s grandmother who told them all about her hotshot lawyer grandson and encouraged them to meet with him. Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) is the louder of the two rednecks. He claims that the local DuPont plant near their farms have been dumping toxic waste in a nearby landfill. It is has a devastating effect on his fields and many of his cattle have died. The more Bilott digs into the story, the more horror stories he finds about corporate neglect and then cover up. This eventually leads to Bilott filing a complaint against DuPont with the help of Tom Terp (an almost unrecognizable Tim Robbins).
Of course, this is just the start a long 15-year battle. The deeper Bilott goes into this investigation, the more strain the stress puts on his body and marriage to Sarah (Anne Hathaway) who bounces back and forth supporting her husband one moment and then yelling at him the next for neglecting his family. Hathaway doesn’t have a lot to do in this film, but she does have one memorable scene sparring against her husband’s boss. He too can’t decide to either pat or stab Bilott on the back for his work on the case. Not because Rob is a jerk, but he wrestles whether or not this is a batter worth fighting for.
Haynes does a fine job of keeping the tension constant throughout the movie adding an element of paranoia here and there. Of course, finding out some of the truths that some big companies want to hide from us in the name of money is enough to keep you on edge as it is. It is equal parts thrilling and sobering.
Dark Waters is a really good movie in every way. It features an everyday man fighting for what’s right because he feels compelled to do so. It’s the right thing to do. We know that Bilott and his family are devout Catholics, but the movie doesn’t focus much on Rob’s faith. However, it is that faith that might explain why he feels so driven and can’t let this case go. Ruffalo is a natural for this role portraying both the underdog and the hero at the same time. Look for his name in the list of Academy Award nominees next year.
One of the cleverest things about Hayne’s film is the decision to include some of the real people involved in this nightmare in the movie as extras. Be sure to stay in the theater during the credits to see who they are and when they appeared in the film you just watched.
Main photo: Bill Camp as Wilbur Tennant and Mark Ruffalo (Mary Cybulski / Focus Features)
I write about arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.