A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
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.
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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?
- In theaters: November 22, 2019
- On DVD or streaming: March 3, 2020
- Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins
- Director: Todd Haynes
- Studio: Focus Features
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Activism
- Run time: 126 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: thematic content, some disturbing images and strong language
- Last updated: September 27, 2021
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