Dark Waters

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
Dark Waters Movie Poster Image
Essential, harrowing true story of environmental crime.
  • PG-13
  • 2019
  • 126 minutes

Parents say

age 14+
Based on 3 reviews

Kids say

age 12+
Based on 7 reviews

Did this review miss something on diversity?

Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive, diverse representations in books, TV shows, and movies. Want to help us help them? Suggest a diversity update

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Though movie is far from optimistic, and it states flatly that huge corporations can't be beaten, it does argue that individuals can continue fighting in new ways, can stand up for others. Also imparts frankly terrifying information that 99% of all humans on earth have the C8 chemical in our systems, that it will be there forever.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Though far from perfect, Robert Bilott is certainly a role model for the way he continued (and continues) to fight for people who've been affected by DuPont's use of a toxic chemical. Yet just about everything else in Bilott's life suffered in some way, including his health, his relationship with family.


Disturbing images. Diseased cow parts. Shooting cow with rifle, some blood shown. Video footage shows sick/dead cows. Shocking photos of deformities. House set on fire.


Teens skinny-dip; naked female bottom briefly shown.


A couple uses of "f--k." Also "s--t," "a--hole," "son of a bitch," "ass," "goddamn," "damn," "hell," "crap." Uses of "Jesus" (as exclamation) and "for God's sake."


Arby's packaging shown. Cheerio's and Pop-Tarts packages seen. Dinner at Benihana.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Drinks at a fancy dinner party. Cigarette smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Dark Waters is a drama based on a 2016 New York Times Magazine article about huge chemical company DuPont knowingly using toxic substances in its billion-dollar products. Mark Ruffalo plays real-life lawyer Robert Bilott, who's trying to fight for the chemical's victims. The movie is harrowing and unsettling but extremely well made and absolutely worth watching. Expect some disturbing images, including sick and dying cows, diseased cow parts, deformities in humans, the shooting of a cow with a rifle (some blood shown), and a house being set on fire. Language is fairly strong, with a couple uses of "f--k," plus "s--t," "goddamn," and more. Teens skinny-dip in one scene, and a bare bottom is briefly seen. There's social drinking at a party and background cigarette smoking.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byBrigidArmbrust October 3, 2020
Adult Written byDrRJSB August 27, 2020

Vital Message Affecting Everyone

If you have teens interested in the environment or social justice, this is the story of a reluctant hero who decides to do the right thing, no matter how risky... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written bycalm down September 5, 2020

Very well made movie.

Dark waters is a true story of corporate defense lawyer Robert Billot who took the side of a rural farmer against the biggest chemical company in America. Every... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written byRosie7119 August 22, 2020

Can't believe it actually happened

I would recommend this for 13 and up because it can get stressful at times. It is also horrifying that it's a true story. It tells the truth about how larg... Continue reading

What's the story?

In DARK WATERS, lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) works in Cincinnati for a big firm that specializes in defending big chemical companies. On the verge of getting a promotion, Bilott receives an unannounced visit from a farmer named Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp). Tennant, who knows Bilott's grandmother, wants the lawyer to help him figure out what's been killing his cattle. Out of a sense of duty, Bilott visits Tennant's farm -- and he's shocked by what he sees. He decides to investigate the situation, sure that it will be wrapped up quickly. But before long, he realizes that people, in addition to animals, are being poisoned. After discovering the existence of a secret chemical, Bilott winds up suing the massive company DuPont, a process that will eventually take years, test his marriage to Sarah (Anne Hathaway), and push his own health to the limit. But countless lives may be at stake.

Is it any good?

Issue-oriented movies aren't uncommon, but this essential drama feels starker and truer than most; it's patient, unafraid, and stripped of any kind of hollow self-congratulations. Star Ruffalo is one of the keys to the success of Dark Waters, which is based on a 2016 New York Times Magazine article; he burrows deep into a realistic, non-movie-star performance (he also produced the film). But the production's ringer is director Todd Haynes, who's best known for his luscious, edgy soap operas Far from Heaven (2002) and Carol (2015) and their painterly color palettes. Earlier in his career, though, Haynes dealt directly with sickness in films like Poison (1991) and Safe (1995); the latter told the story of a woman suffering from some unknown, undefinable "environmental" disease.

That theme leads right into Dark Waters, and Haynes gives this movie the same queasy, unsettling touch. In one scene, Bilott questions a DuPont representative, showing him a photograph of a boy, Bucky Bailey -- the child of a woman who worked at DuPont -- who has drastic facial deformities; the corporate stooge can't even look at it. Later, Haynes shows us the actual, real-life child, now grown up, asking viewers to really look and not turn away. With the help of cinematographer Edward Lachman, Haynes treats the movie with an absence of color, focusing on airless board rooms, snowy, muddy exteriors, and a general sense of unhealthiness all around. It's as if the very air were toxic. As the movie continues, it becomes clear that there's no clear victor in this David and Goliath battle -- and in fact, the war goes on.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Dark Waters' disturbing and/or violent images. How much does the movie show? Is it enough to get its point across? Too much? Too little?

  • Is Bilott a role model? What does he accomplish in the movie? How much does he give up?

  • What is it like to face impossible odds? Why is it often easier to give up than to keep fighting?

  • How does this movie compare to other movies about real-life social issues?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love dramas about big issues

Themes & Topics

Browse titles with similar subject matter.

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.

See how we rate

Streaming options powered by JustWatch

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Our ratings are based on child development best practices. We display the minimum age for which content is developmentally appropriate. The star rating reflects overall quality.

Learn how we rate