Film & TV Film Reviews Muse

Review: Dark Waters

Georgia Jones takes a look at Dark Waters, a crime-thriller based on a very intriguing legal battle.

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Image Credit: Entertainment One

Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins
Running Time: 2h 6mins
Rating: 12A

From the opening credits, Todd Haynes makes it very clear that Dark Waters is not an exaggerated piece of fiction. While it fits perfectly as a crime-thriller, what makes Dark Waters more unsettling is that it is based on a legal battle that was only settled as recently as 2015. Mark Ruffalo doubles up as both a producer of the film and its protagonist, corporate lawyer Robert Bilott. While working for corporate law firm Taft Stettinus & Hollister, Bilott is approached by Wilburn Tennant, a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia who is seeking Bilott’s help to prove his claims that there is a link between the corporation Dupont and the death of over 190 of his cattle.

It quickly unravels, however, that Dupont have not simply been sacrificing a few cattle for the sake of Teflon but have been including a chemical called PFOA-C8 in their products, despite being aware of its poisonous effects: not just on animals, but on humans. The film is intricately written and what might appear slow at first later connects to Bilott’s jaw-dropping discovery that Dupont have been actively covering up their knowledge of the detrimental effects of PFOA-C8 since its creation in World War II. While driving through Parkersburg at the beginning of the film Bilott passes a young girl on a bike, who smiles at him. She appears carefree and happy, beaming at Bilott, yet her smile reveals a mouth full of rotting, black teeth. Many of Bilott’s drives around Parkersburg are accompanied by a sombre rendition of the classic song Take Me Home, Country Roads, in which John Denver describes West Virginia as “almost heaven”. Haynes could almost be seen to turn this loving tribute to West Virginia into an ironic commentary on corporations that prey on the most vulnerable in areas of lower socioeconomic status; it is not the billionaires who own Dupont that feel the effects of PFOA-C8, but rather the workers in the factories and the people who have no choice but to drink the water that they are polluting.

Dark Waters’ greatest triumph is its blending of the real-life story with its portrayal on the big screen.  The film is based on a New York Times article by Nathaniel Rich entitled 'The Lawyer Who Became Dupont’s Worst Nightmare', of which after reading, Mark Ruffalo bought the rights and enlisted Todd Haynes to direct. Ruffalo has fully utilised the power of cinema as a means of raising awareness to the ongoing threat of chemical poisoning by the world’s biggest corporations; as recently as last month he presented the film to the European Parliament. Clearly, Ruffalo wanted to ensure that this was a powerful film, something that Haynes understood. Some of the film’s most poignant moments were in the minor details; Haynes believed that the real heroes of Dark Waters were those involved in the real-life task of fighting against Dupont, thus some of the most influential people, such as Joe and Darlene Kiger, feature in the film as extras. The most heart-warming cameo, however, is that of William “Bucky” Bailey. Bailey is a point of inspiration for Bilott during his mammoth fight in taking down Dupont: from birth, Bailey suffered deformities as a direct result of his mother being exposed to PFOA-C8 while working at a Teflon factory. Despite there being proof that this was the cause, Dupont would never accept that they were at fault.

At the end of the film, while Bilott is putting petrol in his car, he is asked by a stranger if he knows the scores to a sports game that is taking place; the shot switches, and we learn that Bilott has been approached by no other than Bucky Bailey. This is one of the most joyful moments in the film; although few words are exchanged between the two, Bilott has one last piece of hope restored thanks to Bailey, who has no idea that he has had played such an important role in proving Dupont’s culpability. Before the end credits roll, Haynes informs us that the character of Bucky Bailey is played by no other than Bucky Bailey himself, which adds a sobering depth to the story, as we are presented with someone who was a victim of Dupont’s poisoning even before being born; while we only see 2 hours 6 minutes, this has and will continue to be his life. Haynes’ inclusion of those affected by the contamination in real life seems like a fitting acknowledgment and thank you, as their work and perseverance ultimately transcends making good cinema and has contributed to protecting public health worldwide.

Despite the main focus of the film being on one man’s fight, one of the most powerful messages to come from Dark Waters is about solidarity and supporting one another. Although slow at times, there are moments where we learn about Rob Bilott the husband and father, as well as Rob Bilott the lawyer, which are integral to his character development. Anne Hathaway puts on a stunning, emotionally charged performance as Sarah Bilott, Rob’s wife, who is constantly put in a dilemma between providing unwavering support for her husband and simply wishing he had not spent 13 years of their marriage working on the Dupont case above everything else.

Each resident of Parkersburg who spoke out against Dupont publicly were ostracised and, at times, even bullied by other residents, who view Dupont as an economic necessity for their local community. However, no matter how many years it took or however many sacrifices had to be made by those involved, their efforts resulted in a $671 million pay-out for those citizens of Parkersburg who supported Dupont, and got poisoned as a ‘thank-you’.

Editor's Note: This film was screened at City Screen York

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