‘Dark Waters’ Puts Environmental Lawyer Robert Bilott’s Incredible Bravery on Display

Based on a powerful true story, “Dark Waters” is an inspired courtroom thriller that follows an environmental lawyer who takes on the system, essentially all by himself. Acclaimed filmmaker Todd Haynes’ latest offering is more of a hidden domestic drama in the guise of a Sidney Lumet legal thriller, though its vision as a piece of film artistry does not completely tackle to the incredible real-life story of Robert Bilott’s bravery. 

Haynes is an extraordinary filmmaker, and he’s applied his unique aesthetic and sensibility to the proceedings, staging almost every sequence with a deft attention paid to the details of his mise-en-scène, shooting through out-of-focus blinders, foggy car windshields, office windows, and stained glass doors. The script has some sharp dialog, and handles dolling out large chunks of exposition without much effort, while housing an ensemble of fantastic actors, giving powerhouse performances.

“Dark Waters” is primarily set in Cincinnati, but takes numerous road trips to West Virginia, as Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a lawyer who represents DuPont, a chemical-producing corporate conglomerate, uncovers a conspiracy involving the corporation that he is paid to defend. Water near a landfill has been causing the cows of local farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) to develop illnesses that lead to them being put down. At this point, he’s buried almost 200 of his livestock. Bilott soon learns the problem goes much deeper than just one farm, or even one town. Entertainment Voice spoke with real-life hero Robert Bilott about the story.

“There was clearly something wrong going on in that landfill,” Bilott said, “What really became disturbing was realizing that it was not just the cows, not just that family, it was in the drinking water of the entire community. It was in the blood of everyone across the country, and likely millions of people had been exposed worldwide. We were dealing with a massive public health crisis that nobody was really aware of yet.” DuPont was dumping the chemicals of one of their highest selling products, Teflon, which had afflicted the entire country with six different terminal conditions. 

“Dark Waters” doesn’t only tell the victims side of the story; it’s concerned with the macro, in addition to the micro, exploring how the case affected the firm fighting the battle, Bilott’s own family (Anne Hathaway plays his wife, Sarah) and the entire world. “It’s important for people to see the impact that these issues have on people of all different levels and the folks in the community,” Bilott noted. “On my family, and on the firm, and on all the different intersections of different groups that a story like this touches.”

After Nathaniel Rich’s New York Times Magazine article on the story came out, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” lead actor Mark Ruffalo reached out to Bilott. “We had a lengthy talk on the phone, and [Mark] came out and met with my family and spent a lot of time together. It became clear to me that this was definitely the right guy. He was passionate, dedicated to doing the project the right way, and cared about getting the story out in such a manner that people could understand what really happened here.”

As the narrative continues, the more Bilott’s ongoing stresses begin to mount, eventually leading to major personal health issues, but the manic intensity of “Dark Waters” is counterbalanced by director Todd Haynes’ warm humanitarian touch, and Ruffalo’s performance as Bilott is powerfully earnest in his attempt to achieve some kind of moral equity. The movie has a nontraditional narrative structure given that it virtually takes place over a 20-year period, packing into its runtime the multitude of ongoing issues Bilott was facing. “We also had to wait for the science panel to complete its work,” Bilott noted. “It was this massive health study, and nobody really had any idea how long it would take to go through all the data, and this was also occurring during a massive economic meltdown. A lot of pressures were going on in that period of time, including my own health issues, as you see in the film.”

“Dark Waters” covers a lot of ground, but could have been more suited settling in on a few essential plot threads and fully developing those thematically, and emotionally. By touching on so many of the various components that were affecting Bilott, such as his relationship with his boss, (played by the talented Tim Robbins, who doesn’t have much to do until he explodes in his big scene) the central conflict loses focus. Hathaway is relegated to the role of the wife who insists she’s not “just the wife” but the story never really says otherwise; as it’s colossal story that words, or a film, can’t quite do justice.

Dark Waters” opens Nov. 22 in select theaters.