Dark Waters is a necessary, harrowing look into the capitalist environmental crisis


By George Mellowship, Third Year, Geography

Having studied the environment for almost 3 years, I am always pleased when films with an environmental focus reach cinema. Dark Waters (2019) is a tense, infuriating brilliant film that is surely one of the ones that got away from receiving an Oscar nomination.

One of the things that surprised me most about Dark Waters, a film based on a 2016 New York Times article entitled ‘The lawyer who made DuPont’s worst nightmare’, was that before the film I had never even heard of the true events that the film is based on. Dark Waters is a tense, infuriating brilliant film that is surely one of the ones that got away from receiving an Oscar nomination.

Mark Ruffalo plays corporate lawyer turned climate warrior Robert Bilott | IMDb / Participant

Starting in the late ‘90s but then spanning all the way to 2015, the film stars Mark Ruffalo as corporate lawyer Robert Bilott, who usually defends big corporate chemical companies. However, when a local farmer reaches out to Bilott as virtually all his cattle have died in mysterious and horrific circumstances, Bilott uncovers a truth that is completely shocking, and is made all the more horrific considering it actually happened.

The personal price paid for standing up to one of America’s biggest corporations is heart-breaking

Bilott discovers that DuPont, one of America’s largest chemical companies is knowingly polluting an unregulated harmful chemical into water systems causing harmful health effects for both humans and wildlife, sparking a corporate legal battle that spans the course of 20 years.

The film is brilliant in building suspense and tension and tonally feels like a mixture of a thriller and courtroom drama. There are also typical horror tropes like video tapes complete with static, peculiar behaving animals and gruesome body horror.

Bilott takes on the courts he is well accustomed to in a case that would change his life forever | IMDb / Participant

The nods to the horror genre are perhaps hat tipping to the horrific consequences experienced by the victims of the scandal. The passing of time also helps build tension as the revelations and shocks keep coming. The lengths that Bilott has to go to get even a slither of progress and justice are staggering, with Mark Ruffalo putting in a knockout performance.

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Without a doubt, the most striking aspect of the film is the sense of injustice and anger that it leaves brewing inside you. The personal price that Bilott and witnesses in the case had to pay for standing up to one of America’s biggest corporations is heart-breaking.

Individuals are shunned by their community for speaking out against a corporation seen as on the general public’s side. Anne Hathaway acts as a foil to Ruffalo’s lead, and embodies the family stress and conflict brought on by this legal case.

It is perhaps pertinent that I saw this film the day after attending Greta Thunberg’s massive Bristol rally. In her speech, Greta discussed how big corporations need to be held accountable for the environmental damage that they are doing and that it is individuals like us that pay for their greed. This film highlights this perfectly.

The corporate greed and disregard for regular people depicted in the film will leave you gobsmacked, but what is all the more shocking is how the system is rigged to benefit the rich and the corporations. If you don’t get a chance to see the film - you are probably shooting yourself in the foot! - read the 2016 article in the New York Times. This film shows the struggle of getting regulation for one chemical compound takes almost 25 years. There are believed to be around 60,000 similar compounds currently reaching water systems.

Bilott uncovers a truth that is made all the more horrific considering it actually happened

One of the beauties and reasons that I love films is that like art, how we respond to them is entirely subjective. Having seen Joker (2019), JoJo Rabbit (2019), 1917 (2019) and Parasite (2019), whilst not saying they are not bad films, I enjoyed and was gripped far more by Dark Waters. It bewilders me that the film has not yet gathered more traction at the box office and during awards season.

Ruffalo and director Todd Haynes behind-the-scenes of the groundbreaking Dark Waters | IMDb / Participant

Is a film in which corporations and American capitalism called out too close to home for The Academy? Perhaps so, but Dark Waters and the messages it leaves you with will stay with you like the microplastic pollutant in our bloodstreams. Being left furious and devastated at the end of a film are perhaps not what you associate with enjoyable cinema, but Dark Waters is a tense, infuriating and, in my opinion, shocking must-see.

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Although Greta Thunberg deserves all the praise she gets - and be in no doubt that I am a huge fan - Robert Bilott truly deserves the service that the film provides him with in portraying his role in one of the worst environmental scandals throughout history.

Featured: IMDb / Participant

Do you think Dark Waters does enough to shine a light on one of the environment's unsung heroes?