Upon exiting an early screening of the Cincinnati-shot Dark Waters, I found myself trembling — the terror it conveyed was so real that I had to take a few moments in my car to calm down. Stripped of metaphors and instead steeped in realism, Todd Haynes’ film may be his most conventional yet, but it’s nonetheless wholly upsetting.
Dark Waters tells the true story of lawyer Robert Bilott, who at the start of the film is announced as the next partner at Cincinnati law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister. Then thickly-accented farmer Wilbur Tennant (played by Bill Camp) of Parkersburg, West Virginia shows up with claims that hundreds of his cows have died under strange circumstances. He believes, rightfully so, that it is linked to chemical company DuPont, which operates a site in the town and a landfill up the hill from Tennant.
Here’s the catch: DuPont employs and owns most of this Appalachian town. Tennant’s resources locally, therefore, turn up dry, so he reaches out to Bilott, having heard his name from Bilott’s grandmother — a fellow Parkersburg resident. At the time, Bilott’s firm largely represents corporations, including DuPont. Still, as a favor to his grandmother, Bilott drives to Tennant’s farm to hear him out.
It’s that decision that sets Dark Waters — and decades of Bilott’s career — in motion. As Tennant angrily shows him evidence of contamination, a code-switch begins to flip inside Bilott.
Based on Nathaniel Rich's New York Times feature story “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” the film unravels as Bilott exposes how Dupont knowingly used toxic chemicals for decades despite having linked them internally to deadly diseases — such as cancer and various birth defects — as far back as the 1950s. Woven throughout the film is a sense of dread and dizzying paranoia. Washed-out backdrops contribute to this feeling of unease: towering case files, migraine-inducing fluorescent lights, gray skies, bleached creekbeds and colorless offices underline this grim exposé.
When scouring DuPont documents, Bilott uncovers a letter mentioning a substance at the company's landfill called PFOA, which doesn’t appear anywhere as a regulated chemical. Also referred to as C8, DuPont used it in the manufacturing of Teflon, which is used heavily in cookware (namely, nonstick pans) and in other common items. Once produced, C8 never breaks down.
DuPont released thousands of pounds of PFOA powder from the Parkersburg facility into the Ohio River and dumped tons into “digestion ponds,” from which the toxin could leak into the ground. It was found in the drinking water not only of Parkersburg residents but in towns beyond. By the film’s close, the scope of contamination feels so sickeningly vast that it makes one's skin crawl. As the credits roll, Dark Waters leaves us with a damning fact: 99.7 percent of Americans have C8 in their bloodstreams. Even more maddening? PFOAs remain federally unregulated.
Though viewers will likely know where Dark Waters is headed from the start, Haynes renders a case embroiled in science, data and legal jargon into something tangible. The pain of the families and individuals impacted by this case of environmental injustice permeates throughout.
A movie that stretches across 20 years could easily lose its focus. But with every passage of time, Haynes slathers on another layer of worry.
We feel the toll this case has taken on Bilott, who arrives at roadblock after roadblock. His wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) tries to be supportive, but she misses her husband, who is so involved in the case that family time is often sidelined. Hathaway's character could have been fleshed out more. She instead, at times, feels pigeon-holed into the stay-at-home wife stereotype. There were hints of exploring workplace sexism but these moments didn't quite stick in the midst of the larger narrative.
Bilott’s boss at the firm (Tim Robbins) encourages Bilott’s investigations but delivers pay cut after pay cut as the case's expenses pile on. And DuPont’s CEO (Victor Garber) is doing what he can to make Bilott’s work more difficult than it already is. As tensions broil, Bilott encounters stress-induced health problems of his own.
It’s conceivable that, given his position, many would give up on the case. But Bilott trudges on out of moral conviction. We get the sense that Bilott won’t rest until justice is found. (His work is ongoing.) Ruffalo carries the performance with hunched shoulders, twitchy fingers and head-in-hands exhaustion.
Also one of the film’s producers, Ruffalo’s passion for his story is evident. Sure, Dark Waters plays out like other traditional whistleblower films in the lane of Spotlight. And though some moments are heavy-handed in delivery, the real-life story Dark Waters tells is an important one of corporate greed and a failed system. DuPont’s outright apathy is crushing to witness, but not shocking in the least. Let yourself get angry. You should be. (In theaters Nov. 27) Grade: B+