focus features/126 min.
There has been a recent renaissance of investigative journalism films following the critical and commercial successes of 2015’s Spotlight. The Post followed in 2017 and was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, while Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters and Scott Z. Burns’ The Report were released days apart this year. While Dark Waters and The Report don’t revolve around journalists per se—instead following an environmental lawyer and a Senate staffer, respectively—but many of the tropes are still there: the lone investigator slowly compiling information to uncover the truth about powerful interests over the course of years, finally succeeding despite being intimidated by those interests and receiving little institutional support, all while using massive amounts of exposition to explain their findings.
Yet Dark Waters distinguishes itself from The Report in several important ways. The Report details the investigation conducted by Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) into the CIA’s use of torture in the Middle East. While containing some interesting moral quandaries and strong performances, the film is mostly Driver yelling the report at the audience, disguised as rebuttals to the CIA’s talking points. The audience is asked to keep track of an incredible amount of information that is mostly dumped on them. There is virtually no human element outside his working relationship with Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Benning). At one point, Jones alludes to a romantic relationship with someone that ended because of his obsession with the report, but the audience only gets this one line—we never even know the name of the other person. Jones works with two other staffers reviewing the documents, April (Sarah Goldberg) and Julian (Lucas Dixon), but their relationships are mostly nonexistent, as April leaves the team fairly early in the film and I can’t recall Julian having a line in the second half of the film.
By comparison, the relationships in Dark Waters are much closer to the foreground. The film follows Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate defense attorney at a prestigious Cincinnati law firm, who decides to take a case against the chemical company DuPont. Billot discovers that DuPont had knowingly dumped thousands of tons of toxic chemicals in a landfill, poisoning the town and surrounding areas of Parkersburg, West Virginia. As Billot digs further, he discovers that DuPont’s actions haven’t only affected the health of the town, but have implications for global health as well.
Billot is married with young children when his investigation begins. His wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway), is a former lawyer herself and is forced to bear much of the brunt of Billot’s obsession with the investigation. While somewhat cliched, their relationship adds a layer of motivations that aren’t present in The Report. Although Sarah believes that he is too obsessed with the report, and think he’s putting his job and lifestyle in jeopardy, she also stands up for him when he needs her the most. Billot’s interest in the case is rooted in its impact on and his relationship with other people: he is initially drawn to the case because the client, a farmer named Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) knows his grandmother, and is spurred on when he sees a young girl’s fluoride-blackened teeth. He often thinks of his own family, and how they could have easily been affected as well, had Billot not left the area.
The film’s color pallet is very muted and bleak—it’s almost as if the light is filtered through dark water. At its best, the visuals thoroughly complement the diseased setting of the film and draw in the viewer—I felt physically sick and tainted while watching a character drinking tainted water, and the cold light bathing the scene was a major part of that reaction. The color palette exudes hopelessness, and can at times feel overwhelmingly grim, but the hopelessness is mirrored in the obstacles Billot must overcome.
While Billot faces many hurdles, he also has many advantages that stem from his position as a lawyer at a prestigious law firm. To me, one of Dark Waters’ most interesting subversions of its subgenre, and something that I wish was developed further, is the implication of Billot’s complicity in the very systems that protect corporations like DuPont. At one point midway through the film, despite already spending more than a year on the case, Tennant angrily shouts “you’re still one of them!” at Billot. This is, of course, true. He is still a lawyer at a firm that defends other chemical companies—it’s not a stretch to imagine that some of their clients engage in similar practices—and other partners at the firm often express concern about losing business and prestige. Billot has a tremendous amount of privilege that is not afforded to the citizens of Parkersburg: he is able to put his children through Catholic school and live a comfortable lifestyle, despite not making any money for his firm while incurring tremendous expenses for the better part of a decade. Over time, Billot cedes some of this privilege, taking multiple pay cuts and suffering declining health, but there is little examination of the dichotomy between the work he does and the systems that allow him to do it beyond Tennant’s admonishment.
Dark Waters is far from a perfect film—it’s a tad rote and overly bleak—but is elevated by its performances and examinations of class, environmentalism, and corporate greed. The film is an exposé, but it is also a call to action, that we don’t uncritically trust the systems that are meant to protect us, nor that we fail to recognize our own complicity in those systems.