In the 20th century, legal thrillers were most often about murder cases. From award-winning dramas like Twelve Angry Men and To Kill a Mockingbird to thrillers like Jagged Edge and Primal Fear, these films were always about a lone man facing the machinery of the criminal justice system with only a lawyer standing between him and life in prison or the death penalty. I say “him” because these films were almost always made by men about men.
As the 21st century drew near, legal thrillers took a turn toward the environment and corporate polluters causing damage with the illegal disposal of their chemicals. In 1998, John Travolta starred in A Civil Action based on the New York Times bestseller, and a few years later, Julia Roberts starred in Erin Brockovich.
Both films were about scrappy little law firms who risked their existences to go up against big business on behalf of the little guy.
Dark Waters is the latest legal thriller set in the world of toxic tort litigation. In this film, Mark Ruffalo plays Rob Bilott, a corporate defense attorney who is reluctant to cross the courtroom aisle and represent a farmer who claims his cattle herd was wiped out by improper chemical disposal by his upstream neighbor, Dupont.
When Rob uncovers evidence that Dupont’s polluting may also be contaminating the ground water being consumed by local residents, the stakes become much bigger and more frightening.
Dark Waters was released last fall as a possible Oscar contender. Although it didn’t get any love from the Academy, the film is a fascinating look at our country’s lack of environmental regulations and the willingness of corporate America to ignore what rules do exist if it means bigger annual profits. The local residents are reduced to statistics, pawns in a corporate game that may cost them their lives.
Mark Ruffalo gives an earnest performance as the lead attorney who uncovers Dupont’s misconduct. It’s good to see him outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, playing someone other than The Incredible Hulk.
In the real world, Ruffalo is an environmental activist which clearly makes him passionate about the film’s subject matter, but Dark Waters never preaches to its audience. It never feels like it’s beating a drum for a cause or a movement. Given Ruffalo’s real world passion about the environment, it’s all the more interesting to see his character at the beginning of the film representing corporations who are trying to avoid environmental regulations.
He’s slowly converted into a plaintiff’s attorney as he sees the devastation being wrought on the small West Virginia town by Dupont’s illegal chemical dumping.
Dark Waters is based on an article called The Lawyer That Became Dupont’s Worst Nightmare. It appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 2016. That straightforward title says it all. The film is a classic David versus Goliath tale. It hits some very familiar plot beats, but it does it with believability and passion, and that makes Dark Waters worth seeing if you’re a fan of courtroom thrillers.
Dark Waters hits Blu-ray, DVD and digital platforms on March 3rd.