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Dark Waters: a poignant attack on chemical giants and human greed ★★★★

Bill Camp (left) as "Wilbur Tennant" and Mark Ruffalo (right) as "Robert Bilott" in director Todd Haynes' DARK WATERS, a Focus Features release. Credit : Mary Cybulski / Focus Features

Dark Waters uncovers the DuPont scandal, where lawyer Robert Billot (Mark Ruffalo) sued American chemical giant DuPont de Nemours for putting 70,000 people at risk of being poisoned by the man-made chemical PFOA (Teflon – think the stuff on your non-stick pans). It follows how Billot’s acquired the title of ‘DuPont’s worst nightmare’ in Nathaniel Rich’s influential article in The New York Times in 2016. 

Billot is asked for legal counsel by a cattle farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia. While he is initially reluctant to help, he ends up paying a visit to the farm and is deeply disquieted by what he finds: the majority of the cattle have mysteriously died, their teeth are black and their insides distressingly rotten. With evidence pointing to the town’s biggest employer DuPont, Billot decides to investigate the case. Plunging into a gloomy landscape of cold, greenish colours, we follow Billot’s investigation as he delves deep into the case, uncovering shocking evidence while dealing with the company’s political intricacies and stratagems.

Dark Waters is above all a poignant attack – a call to arms. It effectively raises awareness of the DuPont scandal, reminding viewers of the health risks posed by synthetic chemicals, especially when those chemicals are in the hands of multinational chemical companies and are not meticulously regulated by states. Towards the end of the film, Billot heatedly and directly attacks the conduct of chemical companies and the human greed behind them:

“The system is rigged. They want us to believe that it’ll protect us, but that’s a lie. We protect us. (…) Not the companies, not the scientists, not the government. Us.”

While Billot speaks, the shot changes to looking out the window of a moving car. For a moment, all that is visible is a Shell logo in the darkness. An impressively brave move, with which the film not-so-overtly (but also not-so-subtly) warns us that scandals such as DuPont’s might be happening today, perhaps right under our noses. The Shell reference recalls the company’s oil spill controversy, which resulted in the Ogale community developing “strange illnesses” and dying “strange deaths”, as denounced by the community leader, King Emere in an interview with The Guardian

Notwithstanding the power of its message, Dark Waters suffers from two major flaws: the first regards the length and pace of the film, the second its casting. The ending could have been shortened without losing the film’s essence. Furthermore, Dark Waters is first and foremost a Mark Ruffalo film. He features in most scenes, and despite his outstanding performance, the film would have benefitted from greater attention to the rest of the cast. Casting Anne Hathaway as Robert’s wife and reducing her to the role of a stay-at-home-mum, undermines her talent. On the other hand, casting people directly involved in the scandal for minor roles, including the real Robert Billot and his wife, serves to increase viewers’ engagement. 

Despite some minor flaws, Dark Waters remains an incredibly powerful film, making audiences feel outraged, disturbed, and will definitely make you throw away all your scratched pans. 

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