Todd Haynes’ ominously titled Dark Waters was released just a few short months before the world went into lockdown on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. With its focus on the drastic effects of disease, Haynes’ film feels oddly prescient, and this sense is reinforced by a scene in which the main character comes up with a plan to entice people to get on the business end of a needle.
Had Dark Waters not received its cinema release at the tail end of the Before Times, it would almost undoubtedly have joined the glut of prestigious titles that were effectively dumped on streaming services in lieu of theatrical distribution. In Dark Waters’ case, this would have been a great pity, as although the film’s subject matter is inherently televisual—it isn’t hard to imagine this drama unfolding as a miniseries—its treatment is anything but.
Based on Nathaniel Rich’s 2016 New York Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”, Dark Waters fixes its gaze on lawyer Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) and his efforts to bring chemical manufacturers DuPont to book for dumping unregulated toxic waste.
The lawyer is first made aware of the situation through Appalachian farmer Wilbur (Bill Camp), who is an acquaintance of Rob’s grandmother. Wilbur vehemently insists that DuPont’s chemicals are poisoning his livestock, and he furnishes Bilott with a raft of VHS tapes containing disturbing footage of sick and dead animals. As Rob’s work generally involves defending chemical companies, it’s quite understandable that he isn’t overly keen to get involved, but he nevertheless agrees to take a cursory look in order to assuage the incensed Wilbur.
Upon receiving the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, which reveals nothing untoward, Rob considers the possibility that the chemicals in question may not be regulated by the EPA, and he decides to dig deeper. This leads to a public falling out between the lawyer and DuPont executive Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber, suitably reptilian).
While appearing to be compliant with a request for information, DuPont send a mountain of papers to Rob—presumably in the hope that he won’t be able to comb through all of the data, much less find anything useful. However, the lawyer is undeterred and begins the onerous task of sifting through the countless boxes. As he inches his way through the material, Rob notices the frequent mention of a particular chemical, PFOA, for which, mysteriously, no information appears to be available.
Bilott’s inquiry leads him to the discovery that PFOA—perfluorooctanoic acid, aka C8—is used by DuPont in the manufacture of Teflon, and copious amounts of the waste from this toxic, unregulated substance have been dumped into a landfill site next to Wilbur’s farm. As a result, the chemical has made its way into the local water table, thus contaminating a drinking source used by animals and humans. Worse still, DuPont has long since known of PFOA’s carcinogenic properties yet have withheld this vital information—behaviour arguably more toxic than the sludge that has been so recklessly disposed of.
Armed with this knowledge, Rob sets out to gather evidence of both DuPont’s duplicity and C8’s effects. It’s a tortuous journey, one which sees Rob’s health, family and professional standing all suffer, and the years drag on as scientists work to analyse the blood samples from those who were exposed to excessive levels of PFOA.
Haynes’ film deftly conveys the seeming futility of going to war with those who run the show, although, as Rob works tirelessly to come up with something that will—ahem—stick to the makers of Teflon, there is a creeping sense that the hubris surrounding DuPont can only lead to a mighty fall.
Todd Haynes is a skilled director, which is just as well, as here he’s working with a story that has no grey area. In Dark Waters, there are simply perpetrators and victims, and a lesser filmmaker may have struggled to prevent the film from sliding into an obvious, two-dimensional affair. The lines are drawn in a manner that makes everything appear very familiar, and there are no character arcs of note here, yet Haynes’ treatment of the material belies its apparent genericness. Special mention should be made of Ed Lachman’s outstanding cinematography, which contributes much to the film’s mood of portent, with the wintry locales bathed in an eerie, bluish half-light.
The film is anchored by a superb performance by Mark Ruffalo, an always-likeable presence who generally winds up as the best thing in any film in which he’s cast. Here, his Rob Bilott is a sympathetic, relatable, careworn character, one that viewers will have very little trouble warming to. In addition to the sterling work of the aforementioned Camp and Garber, there’s a particularly strong turn by Tim Robbins as Bilott’s boss, while Anne Hathaway plays Rob’s long-suffering wife. It’s a modest, unshowy performance from Hathaway, and it’s good to see the Oscar winner serving the material, as opposed to stopping the show. As Dark Waters eventually reaches the courtroom where so much will be decided, a late appearance by a scene-stealing Bill Pullman provides both a fun diversion and some rare levity, yet Ruffalo always remains the film’s driving force.
Dark Waters is a terrific example of the legal thriller yet it—unlike many entries in the subgenre—doesn’t leave its audience with the sense that all wrongs have been righted. This is due in part to—spoiler alert—the fact that DuPont eventually settled over 3500 cases for under $700 million; not spare change, you may well be thinking, but it is when placed in the context of the $1 billion annual profit DuPont was raking in from Teflon alone. Additionally, it is most dispiriting—if fairly unsurprising—that no criminal charges were laid). As for the recipients of the compensation: while the money they received could certainly be considered to be life-changing, the same description equally applies to the myriad illnesses inflicted by PFOA.
Rob Bilott fought relentlessly to give the little man his day in court, yet the lingering thought of the ongoing effects of C8—a “Forever Chemical”, meaning it never leaves the bloodstream—serves to position the murky Dark Waters far from the feel-good movie so many of us would wish it to be.
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