I love me a good legal thriller, but like all well-worn genres, a lot of them just kind of end up feeling stale and more of the same. It’s a lot of people in suits talking in boardrooms, in hallways, in offices, all while pouring over documents and neglecting their family life. There’s a lot of flat lighting and not a whole lot of tension or atmosphere. I mean, you are kind of limited by the way the genre works, where it needs to represent the legal system, but I’ve always felt they could be much more. Being an attorney is an incredibly taxing job, but it’s not often when we get to see the darker, more dangerous side to their job, and really feel how they do. 
Dark Waters follows Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a defense attorney who represents chemical companies. When old family friend William Tennant (Bill Camp) comes to Bilott claiming he wants to sue the DuPont chemical company for poisoning his water supply, Bilott turns him down. However, at the behest of his grandmother, Bilott decides to look into Tennant’s claims and realizes he may be right. Tennant’s cows on his dairy farm are dying by the dozen from various diseases and as Bilott researches more, he realizes there’s definitely something going on. Corporations like DuPont are massive, though, so they’ll do everything they can in their power to clear their name, terrorizing Bilott at his falls further and further down the rabbit hole. 
Based off the article The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare, this is real life horror story, and I definitely don’t use that words liberally. It’s been a long while since I’ve seen a legal thriller with such a heavy atmosphere and sense of dread. It starts off like a slasher movie almost, with a bunch of drunk teens partying in the woods, followed by DuPont kicking them out, setting up the villains of the film. When Bilott receives the video from Tennant, showing his numerous dead cows with black teeth, tumors, and other horrific ailments. It’s all grainy and stuttering VHS footage, with eerie, droning music slowly taking over the scene. I felt like I was watching something out of Sinister, but you know what? This was the perfect tone for director Todd Haynes to portray this story. This is a real story about a real company poisoning millions of people, not caring about it, and not wanting to own up to it. You really get the scale of how large the DuPont company is and how much influence they have in our day to day lives. Haynes says it all with a single, low angle shot of a DuPont building towering over all of us, making us seem miniscule in the grand scheme of things. I could have really done without the awful color grading for the night time scenes, though. It’s all just so blue and dimly lit, sometimes making it difficult to see the character’s faces. I get they were going for grim, but it was just distracting every time, because the rest of the color grading looks fine. 
This is one of the more depressing films I’ve seen in a while. Not just because of the real-world implications, but also the physical and mental toll it takes on Bilott and his life. At first, he’s indifferent, as he represents chemical companies themselves, but as he finds out more and more information, as well as getting to further know Tennant, his attitude changes. Not just his attitude, though, but his entire worldview. For years, he’s been holed up in a nice office, defending wealthy companies and never even considering the little man. Not to say he was a bad person at that time, but just ignorant, yet practical in how he knew it would affect his job. That eventually doesn’t matter down the line, as he discovers more and more evidence of DuPont knowingly poisoning American citizens, from dumping chemicals into water, to their Teflon products containing dangerous chemicals. I don’t trust companies like DuPont anyway, but Haynes, screenwriters Michael Correa and Michael Matthew Carnahann and especially Mark Ruffalo easily put you into Bilott’s shoes. You feel just as anxious, scared, disgusted, and surprised as he does as he discovers more and more clues. However, it eventually gets to the point where Bilott and his peers question his sanity and if it’s all worth it. It’s nice to see Ruffalo do something outside of comic book movies, because this proves how terrific of an actor he can be. He constantly looks confused, scared, and defeated, but his confidence comes out at the end when he’s finally able to take DuPont to court. You also get some great supporting performances from the likes of Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Bill Camp (playing the most authentic farmer I’ve ever seen on film), and Anne Hathaway. Hathaway is almost wasted, however, playing the generic wife character until Haynes gives her a powerful monologue at the end, just to give her something to do. 
This feeling of tension and despair does dissipate in the third act, though, as it’s here where we get a lot of time jumps. The story starts in 1997 and ends in 2015, with the first two acts dedicated to only the first few years. It’s in the end where we keep flash forwarding, which makes sense, as all of the juicy stuff is found out in the beginning, but the pace picking up way too fast ironically made it feel less intense. The deterioration of Billot’s mind and body feels like it comes on a bit too quick at the end, as well as the overall resolution. I appreciate that Haynes didn’t gussy it up with a climactic court room scene of people screaming at each other, but I did kind of get the sense of, “That’s it?” It was still a satisfying story to watch, though, as like I said before, seeing these big corporations be taken to task just tickles my heart. Unfortunately, the DuPont is still around, having merged with Dow Inc. to create DowDuPont. Yep, they’re always getting bigger, but as long as we have people like Billot still around, there will always be David’s to take down the Goliath’s. While this stylistically and tonally feels different from legal thrillers, it of course falls into the cliché trap of ending the movie with white text on black to fill us in on what happened afterwards. Will that trend ever end? 
From the marketing, you would rightfully assume Dark Waters to be your standard legal thriller, which it somewhat is in the script department. It’s the direction and performances that really stand out, especially with how cold and clinical a lot of legal thrillers can be. Haynes doesn’t really want you to be intrigued, though. He wants you to be sick to your stomach. The movie isn’t terrifying just because of the real-world implications and effects, but because Haynes portrayed this story how it should be portrayed: absolutely frightening.

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