‘Dark Waters’ Review: Class Conflicts Erupt From a Shameless and Amoral Abuse of Power

Dark Waters lifts the veil on a disturbingly relevant true story, one that exposes the cruelty and class conflicts bound to emerge when morality comes up against money. 

The films center on tenacious defense attorney Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), who goes up against one of the world’s largest corporations as its best-kept secret — one resulting in a growing number of unexplainable deaths and illnesses — comes to the surface. 

Dark Waters | Focus Features Press Site
Mark Ruffalo stars as Robert Bilott in director Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters, a Focus Features release | Mary Cybulski / Focus Features

There’s something lurking in the water 

Dark Waters opens with country music playing in the background, as a bunch of teenage kids drive up to the local lake for a bit of forbidden fun, as kids do. Ignoring the sign that makes swimming in the lake off-limits, they jump right in. 

While in the water, the cinematography grows reminiscent of every killer shark movie you can think of. The noise of their legs swishing in the water is exaggerated. The camera angles allude to a dangerous presence. But this threat is no typical predator, for a threat you cannot see is always worse than one you can.

This threat is a chemical one. DuPont has been dropping off vats of C8 in a small West Virginia town, and the chemical has been making its way to the water.

If C8 doesn’t sound familiar, the word Teflon should ring a bell, as it was the chemical used to coat DuPont’s pans for quite some time. C8 has been linked to birth defects, ulcerative colitis, testicular cancer, high cholesterol, and more. While many corporations have phased out the chemical, it is still used in other parts of the world — a bitter realization that settles over this film in a subtle, yet harrowing way. 

Mark Ruffalo’s Robert Bilott embodies the class divide in ‘Dark Waters’ 

When a small-town farmer finds West Virginia boy turned fancy defense attorney Robert Bilott, Bilott is forced to choose between the corporations he has always defended and the innocent people suffering back home. 

Ruffalo’s Bilott is equally uncomfortable in the two polar opposite social settings he must exist within. Whether talking on the farm or sitting at a table surrounded by upper-middle-class corporate men, his hand movements linger an extra second, his lip subtly quivers with awkward tension, his head bows when a side smirk crawls across his face in apprehensive acceptance. He is always searching for his place. And every gesture, every gaze, every talking point illustrates how he, as an individual, straddles class conflicts.

Ruffalo’s character seamlessly embodies the class divide existing at the core of this movie; struggling to mesh with either group, he fights for humanity. He fights for what is right and chooses a side based on virtue alone, for accounting for all the other factors at play would render him paralyzed.

As Bilott puts his family on the line along the way, his wife, Anne Hathaway’s Sarah Bilott, confronts a crossroads. She is willing to sacrifice, but to what end? She is powerful and motherly, angry yet understanding. 

Carrying the emotional subplot, Hathaway is a piercing addition as the woman who wants more from her husband as a father but wouldn’t expect anything less of him as a man. She is not “the wife”; she is the partner. 

‘Dark Waters’ is an all-too-relevant political commentary 

Dark Waters reminds audiences that the powerful play with arrogance and assuredness, while everyday people play with heart and sincerity. Bilott uses what he knows about mega-corporations against them, illustrating just how much control the billionaire class has over society and government. And, with real footage selectively placed, audiences separate from the film briefly, just long enough to explore the real-life fears Dark Waters should conjure before returning to the safety of a dramatic interpretation. 

Dark Waters is an exercise in fearful validation. We all see the world for what it is, but it demands that we look, and keep looking, and keep looking. Though capable of veering into melancholy, the film’s sincerity triumphs, and poignancy becomes the overarching tone.