Dark Waters is one of those Hollywood “message” films. The type where the film is about what it’s about because there is no subtext other than whatever the people working on, and in, the film accidentally allowed to ooze in. Or it would be normally if it were from any other director.
Todd Haynes gives us the typical message movie with all its trappings up to, and including, an all-star cast, each with their own big moment. But Haynes is only interested in the crimes of DuPont Chemicals incidentally; which is not the same as saying he isn’t outraged by them. He clearly is but he’s more taken by the emotional toll Robert Billot (Mark Ruffalo) takes as he takes on one of the largest chemical manufacturing companies in the country.
He’s fascinated by the cost of leading a decades-long crusade against an impossibly bigger and more powerful enemy, the system. Most movies look at moments within the struggle. The script by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan looks at the long game. It’s not enough to fight the good fight, you have to commit to it because often the fight isn’t just one skirmish; it’s several fights over a yawning expanse of time.
The movie is inspired by an article in the New York Times Magazine by Nathaniel Rich, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”. In some ways, Dark Waters feels almost like an investigative piece and less like your standard narrative story. There’s no big trial or any kind of grand conclusion. As such, there is no ticking clock or smoking gun which Robert must uncover.
Haynes and his writers show us something altogether much different, the slog. Normally this would rob the movie of any kind of tension but Dark Waters isn’t boring and never feels adrift. On the contrary, a simmering rage bubbles underneath the entire film but it never really explodes but rather ends with an exhausted sigh. But the weight and responsibility which Robert takes onto his shoulders becomes palpable. We can feel how exhausting it is constantly fighting an uphill battle seemingly alone.
A great sadness lives within Dark Waters. Robert is a corporate defense attorney who just after making partner at his firm is visited by a friend of his grandmothers, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp). Wilbur’s farm is dying and he blames the DuPont dry landfill nearby. Robert looks into the case, partly as a favor to his grandmother and partly because after visiting Wilbur’s farm he’s a little curious how one hundred and ninety cows die seemingly within months of each other.
Every step Robert takes pulls him deeper and deeper into a web of lies and misinformation perpetuated by DuPont Chemicals. It’s not just Wilbur’s farm but the whole of Parkersburg, West Virginia which has been poisoned. Dark Waters is so understated, the fact that DuPont has essentially knowing poisoned the entire country could easily be missed if we weren’t paying attention. Despite Haynes and his writers including a scene where Robert sits his wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) down at their kitchen table to explain what he’s discovered.
There’s a chemical manufactured in a lab, C-8, in Teflon that doesn’t biodegrade. More than that it’s a poison, quite literally, to those who work with it, and those who eat off it, or drink it. Some of my readers may be old enough to remember the Teflon scare a few years back. It turns out the panic was too subdued.
Unlike most films of this caliber, Haynes isn’t sounding alarm bells. Like Robert, he’s too tired. Robert’s boss, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) has a scene in which he blows up at the rest of the partners reluctant to take on Big Chem. In another movie, it would seem too showy or too big. But Haynes uses it as a safety valve to help alleviate our anger and frustration at the events unfolding before our terrified eyes.
The central point which Dark Waters makes is the folly of self-regulation. The EPA didn’t start regulating chemicals until the late seventies and when they did they relied on chemical companies to tell them which were harmful and which were not. Only a naif would think companies don’t lie but even the most cynical would be shocked by the gross inhumanity and negligence from both DuPont and the government. Dark Waters isn’t a feel-good movie; it’s designed to get you mad and prepare you.
Prepare you for the long and arduous struggle ahead. There are no scenes of celebrated victories. If only because every victory only means momentum for the other battles which must be fought. Robert makes a deal with DuPont to get a sample of people from Parkersburg to donate blood. They will run tests to see if they have actually been poisoned on the agreement if they have then DuPont must medically monitor the townsfolk in perpetuity
Robert then comes up with the idea to pay two hundred dollars to anyone who donates blood using the settlement from a previous suit against DuPont. The plan works too well. Some sixty-nine thousand people donate which means it takes time to test and correlate the data. Almost a decade later Robert gets a call. Thanks to the staggering amount of information collected DuPont absolutely poisoned Tennant’s farm and the town.
While at a celebratory dinner with his family at Benihana’s, Robert gets a call. DuPont has decided to go back on the deal. It is not over, he must litigate each and every case brought by the townspeople against the chemical giant.
Dark Waters is a haunted film filled with people who are effortlessly compelled to do the right thing no matter the cost. Robert’s marriage is suffering, his relationship to his kids is strained, his own health is deteriorating due to the almost ceaseless stress of taking on one of the largest and “respected” companies in the country.
Edward Lachman is a long-time collaborator of Haynes. He has shot Carol, Far From Heaven, and Wonderstruck. He’s also shot movies for the great Robert Altman and Mira Nair. All of this is by way of saying Dark Waters is a gorgeously and intimately shot feature. Lachman’s camera refuses to give us any breathing space, making every room feel small and claustrophobic as Robert stubbornly climbs up a hill which seems to all others an unclimbable mountain.
Quiet and introspective the film lacks a “big case” which to end the movie on. Instead, it ends with a weary and haggard Robert in a courtroom being greeted by a judge with a familiar and bemused, “Hello, again.” Robert Billot won every case he brought against DuPont and successfully litigated so many cases of corporate malfeasance against them that Du Pont threw in the towel and agreed to pay the medical costs.
But it is not a happy note. Because DuPont didn’t just poison the water supply of a small West Virginia town. They also poisoned ours as well. Studies show that over ninety percent of Americans have ingested C-8.
Dark Waters is an intense rage-inducing film that goes out of its way not to be a crowd-pleaser or even a rallying cry. Quiet, muted, but filled with emotion, Haynes refuses to bend his style to fit the message. Instead, he finds a way to meld the two; which makes the film less a salve and more a potent lingering tonic meant to shock the system.