REVIEW: Dark Waters [2019]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 126 minutes
    Release Date: November 22nd, 2019 (USA)
    Studio: Focus Features
    Director(s): Todd Haynes
    Writer(s): Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa / Nathaniel Rich (article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”)

You think they’re gonna show me?!

It’s crazy how our country protects for-profit businesses in ways that allow them to accrue astronomical profits with little to no oversight. There’s this notion that what they provide our economy outweighs the damage they inflict on our society. But who reaps that financial benefit? Rather than collect millions of dollars in taxes that could fund programs the poor need to survive, we line the pockets of the already rich and watch their trickle down faucets divert someplace else to line them thicker still. We become easily duped by the peanuts these companies spend on thinly veiled advertising masked as community assistance and willingly worship at their alter because what they tell us ensures we never look close enough to recognize how it’s all been a lie.

This is life in a “company town” like Parkersburg, West Virginia. Residents are so brainwashed by the distraction (jobs, sponsorships, environmental initiatives, etc.) that they’ll quite literally defend their murderers’ altruism despite irrefutable evidence shoved in their faces that caught these corporate messiahs loading the gun, aiming at them, and pulling the trigger. One could argue America is itself a “company town” now wherein voters swear allegiance to political parties instead of a Constitution built to protect them from those same institutions. And anyone who dares stand defiant falls prey to an unwinnable resource battle. Victory is usually worse anyway since that’s when restitution is exposed as a fraction of the profits earned off your pain. Killing you for decades unchecked proves more fiscally responsible than stopping early.

Big businesses like DuPont and Dow Chemical (which ironically merged in 2017) have equations that weigh money lost in the present with money that might be owed in the future. They discover the former is almost always more lucrative, work to find ways that will prolong their deception, and count their profits as victims are buried six feet deep. Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) was a complicit participant via silence until his suffering could no longer be explained away. Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) was complicit as one of the lawyers who excelled at finding those loopholes. And Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) was complicit by hiring him to do so. We’re all complicit … at least until we’re not. Because Tennant and Bilott eventually woke, the rest has become history.

The ubiquity of this case (Teflon’s infamous C-8 acid poisoning our drinking water) against DuPont meant screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa could spend more time on how it affected Bilott as the ostensible whistleblower than on the trial itself. Very little of Todd HaynesDark Waters takes place in a courtroom as a result because everything else is vastly more intriguing. Here’s a corporate defense attorney that just made partner at his firm who talks himself into hearing what Tennant’s disgruntled farmer has to say because the man knew his grandmother. Who knows what might have happened without this tenuous connection. Everyone in Parkersburg loved DuPont so much that no local firm would even let Wilbur through its door. Fate is a funny thing.

As the script (adapted from Nathaniel Rich‘s The New York Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”) illustrates, the coincidences only increase from there. Add the fact that Billott was close enough to DuPont’s Donnelly to call him a friend. Add a boss in Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) who was willing to go to bat for Rob despite how bad suing a company they hoped to bring on as a client would look to all the companies that already were. There’s the wife (Anne Hathaway‘s Sarah) who is supportive precisely because she used to be a lawyer and knows the significance of what must be done. There’s children the world over who have been unwittingly endangered. And don’t forget the casualty number increasing every day.

The filmmakers therefore take us through this intertwined tapestry of ambivalence combatted by the select few who are angry enough to say, “No more.” We witness Bilott’s struggle to acknowledge how he compromised in the past while figuring out how to exploit yesterday’s weapons to balance the scales today. This means going toe-to-toe with an enemy that sees him as a traitor even though they’re the ones who betrayed the American public. The slow transformation of Bilott and Donnelly’s relationship is deftly and economically rendered in a way that allows Ruffalo and Garber’s performances to flip the light switch from civil pleasantries to cutthroat aggression. Subsequent scenes with Bilott sitting amongst mountains of files might appear superficially boring by comparison, but his revelatory epiphanies within are conversely electric.

Things do ultimately move into a waiting game once an independent scientific study is ruled essential for the process to proceed, but Haynes forcing us to feel each year pass is deliberate. Time makes people impatient and impatience tends to shift emotional trends from relief to frustration. And on whom does their vitriol fall? Not DuPont. Suddenly Rob becomes the target of their ire because he’s indirectly responsible for the wait. That’s how fickle we are as human beings. Our selfishness will turn us against the person who may have single-handedly saved our lives because our spoils haven’t yet arrived. It’s no easier on him either, though. Bilott got people on his side because things were happening. It’s harder to stay the course when stagnancy gets equated with failure.

Dark Waters is a depiction of heroism and strength opposite heavy odds (Camp steals the film with his gruff indignation and palpable fear for his family due to the potential consequences), but it’s also a sad indictment on how the governmental systems meant to protect us too often don’t. The hours necessary and sacrifices made are incalculable and the result—while inspiring—is never enough by comparison considering how little it affects the transgressor. Bilott risks losing his family, career, and life in the process, but he will surely say it was all worth it because he was on the right side of history whether he won or lost. As Ruffalo’s emotional portrayal shows on-screen, this fight was personal for so many reasons. Quitting was never an option.

[1] Mark Ruffalo stars as ‘Robert Bilott’ in director Todd Haynes’ DARK WATERS, a Focus Features release. Credit : Mary Cybulski / Focus Features
[2] Bill Camp (left) as ‘Wilbur Tennant’ and Jim Azelvandre (right) as ‘Jim Tennant’ in director Todd Haynes’ DARK WATERS, a Focus Features release. Credit : Mary Cybulski / Focus Features
[3] Victor Garber (left) as ‘Phil Donnelly’ and Tim Robbins (right) as ‘Tom Terp’ in director Todd Haynes’ DARK WATERS, a Focus Features release. Credit : Mary Cybulski / Focus Features

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