DIRECTED BY: TODD HAYNES/2019
The simplest way to describe Todd Haynes latest film, Dark Waters, is to compare it to another film about corporate corruption affecting the drinking water, Erin Brockovich. That said, they are really very different films. While Erin Brockovich received awards, and a strong box office, Dark Waters is in many ways the better film, and yet will probably not see the level of success that Erin Brockovich received. Maybe this is due to timing, the politics of the film’s stars, or a sense that this is simply a retread of the subject matter that was covered in Erin Brockovich. Whatever the reason may be, Dark Waters deserves to be seen, especially since nearly everyone reading this is a victim of this story, maybe without even knowing it.
Mark Ruffalo (Avengers: Endgame), is Robert Bilott, a Cincinnati lawyer who originally hails from West Virginia. Bilott is an unassuming corporate lawyer who represents several chemical corporations. He has a supporting wife named Sarah (Anne Hathaway-Oceans 8), a former attorney and stay-at-home-mom, and their children. He is on the brink of making partner when a farmer from West Virginia named Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp-Joker), enters his office with a box of VHS videotapes, and upsets Bilott’s comfortable life forever.
Bilott’s grandmother, who lives near Parkersburg, West Virginia, is friends with Tennant, and as a favor to her, Bilott makes the drive back to the town he spent summers in as a child. As he begins to see the horrific effects on the livestock that Tennant had described, he begins to ask questions of DuPont executives he is familiar with. This leads to him suing DuPont just for discovery, whereby DuPont seeks to bury him with an avalanche of paperwork that no one would have the time to look through. Bilott, however, is not your average attorney, and what he lacks in Erin Brockovich’s charisma, he makes up for in tedious attention to detail.
What he uncovers is the largest law suit you’ve never heard of involving “forever chemicals” that DuPont is shown to have been fully aware of their effects yet continued to produce them. The most common name of the product most people would recognize is Teflon. By the end of the film, we learn the harrowing facts that 99% of the country has been exposed to the effects of these chemicals, and that while Bilott continues to fight DuPont, the litigation is ongoing,, and the number of “forever chemicals” continues to grow.
While this film is built as a corporate thriller, it is deeply unsettling like a classic horror film. Remember in Erin Brockovich when she slyly claimed that the water being served to the chemical company executives at a meeting was from the water source affecting the town in her lawsuit? Now, imagine that wasn’t a cleverly effective moment to illicit a powerfully empathetic response from the audience, but was the level of intensity of the entire film. That is Dark Waters. Disturbing imagery, animals going mad and charging towards humans, and individuals becoming aware that the poison causing all of this has permeated their entire lives through the goods they have purchased to raise their standard of living. What Hitchcock could have done with this is worth thinking about. Todd Haynes ably presents it all, after beginning the film with what could have been a Jaws scene from the 1970’s.
The film features a fantastic supporting cast that includes Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption), Bill Pullman (The Ballad of Lefty Brown), Mare Winningham (Philomenia), and Victor Garber (Argo), as well as the aforementioned Bill Camp. Each of these actors, and the entire cast, provide solid performances that helps build and keep the tension throughout the film. The only real let-down is the fact that Anne Hathaway has very little to do in this script, especially considering her talent.
Just as DuPont has sought to block Robert Bilott at every turn from revealing the truth to the public, including trying to prevent him from reporting to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this film seems to be fighting a similar battle to be seen and present this case to an even larger audience. The level of corruption it exposes from America’s chemical companies, the corroboration from politicians that has allowed through loosely written regulations for these chemical companies to effectively regulate themselves when there are over 60,000 synthetic chemicals in our products that are unregulated, and potentially having an effect on all of us, each and every day, is mind-blowing.
Dark Waters is an important film, and deserves to be seen, heard, discussed, and acted upon. Based on the NY Times article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich, this is a film that won’t let you go. For those who see actor Mark Ruffalo, who also is a producer on the film, as a political extremist might immediately dismiss this as more propaganda of some leftist for his environmental crusade. In a live Q&A via satellite at the Alamo Drafthouse following the screening of this film, Ruffalo doesn’t dispute that his politics got him involved in this film. What is unique, and worthy of consideration for those who are skeptical of Ruffalo, is that the real Robert Bilott was basically the polar opposite of Ruffalo politically.
Bilott, was also at the interview and he spoke about his turn from being a corporate defender to a crusader who has been going after the type of companies he used to defend. The common ground he shares with Ruffalo is what DuPont was doing to people. As a pro-capitalist person, Bilott talked about how true capitalism encourages competition, but how it shouldn’t allow companies to profit while knowingly causing harm and lying to cover it up. He mentions it was the “right thing to do”. Thankfully, he continues his fight, and for all of our sakes, I hope that more people become aware of the danger we are all putting ourselves in for the sake of our own conveniences. Dark Waters is an important part of raising that awareness, and incidentally is a better film than Erin Brockovich was at ringing the alarms….if only it will get seen.