The film begins in the late 90s, as Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) works his way up a prestigious Cincinnati law firm. He makes his name steering companies like 3M and Dow safely away from the penetrating gaze of the EPA. Bilott’s world gets rocked when two grubby farmers from his West Virginia hometown totter into his tweedy law offices. They tell him that the local DuPont plant has been dumping chemical waste into the rivers and onto their farms. Bilott politely explains that he is the wolf, not the sheep in this scenario, and shoos them out of the building.
Bilott goes back to work, but their story seeps into his brain. His grandmother still lives in that town. She drinks that tap-water. Bilott goes home and surveys the fields of dead cattle and rotten crops. Even more alarming, the chemicals appear to be taking a human toll: Children smile with rotting teeth, while their parents grow increasingly frail. Duly alarmed, Bilott’s mind is made up. He switches teams and sues DuPont.
As Bilott wades into this tide pool of sharks, he doesn’t bear the risk alone. His wife (Anne Hathaway) watches with growing concern as Bilott becomes consumed with the sweeping scope his case. His behavior grows erratic. His health declines. Meanwhile, the head of Bilott’s law firm (Tim Robbins) must weigh his obligation to do the right thing against the enormous risk of staring down a hulking corporate monster like DuPont.
This dense, dour storyline gets greatly aided by phenomenal performances. Ruffalo strikes absolute gold as the dweeby, sullen Rob Bilott, the last man you’d expect to slay a billion-dollar dragon. The frustrated wife could have been a one-dimensional role, but Hathaway brings real fire and passion to her scenes. Likewise, Robbins shows us the conflict of a man slowly won over by Bilott’s wobbly righteousness. Finally, a tip of the cap to Bill Pullman, who channels a little Yosemite Sam in his portrayal of a wacky local lawyer.
With a movie like Dark Waters, it’d be easy to get tangled in a thicket of mumbo jumbo. Combine legalese and complex chemistry (Perfluorooctanoic acid, anyone?) and you’re bound to endure stretches of dialogue that nobody understands. Fortunately, the screenplay (by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan) does a great job of explaining as much as we need to know, all while keeping focus on the human side of this disaster. Despite its heavy subject matter, Dark Waters stays compelling all the way through.
At its heart, this is a powerful study of telling truth to power. These smug chemical companies borrow a lot of the tactics tobacco companies used in the face of litigation: Bog your opponent down in bureaucracy, shovel loads of money at the problem, and stay smug in the faith that might will make right. Like Michael Mann’s terrific The Insider, Dark Waters reminds us of the classic quote from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” This is one of the best films of the year.
126 min. PG-13.
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