After a slow start 2019 ended up becoming a really strong year for movies. There have been a lot of different recurring themes this year, but one of the biggest trends in storytelling this year has been a palpable anger, fear, and downright hatred of the world of capitalism and corporations. It makes sense, we increasingly find ourselves plummeting into a dystopia courtesy of the various companies that rule out lives, so it makes sense that storytelling has caught up and started to take a stand against that inevitable march towards destruction. Which, isn’t really that new of a thing. Movies that have been taking down and exposing the crimes and misdeeds of corporations, because they’ve been operating in that mentality for decades. It’s been a successful formula, making movies that get people riled up and inform them about things that probably came from documentaries or longform articles, but in a more digestible form. And, we’ve gotten a new film in that style, from a rather unlikely source. Because when I saw that there was a movie coming out about a lawyer who exposed some incredibly heinous behavior done by the DuPont company and that it was filmed by none other than Todd Haynes, a director best known for gorgeously shot tragic love stories, I was a little confused. But, it’s not wise to bet against Haynes, because the guy has proven himself as a masterful director of actors, and it’s through that that he manages to take what could be a rather dry film and turn it into a tense and fury-inducing character drama.
The film follows a lawyer named Robert Bilott. He works for a law firm in Cincinnati that frequently defends chemical companies, and is currently in the business to trying to woo DuPont Chemicals in order to become their go to legal team. However, shortly after becoming a partner at the firm, Bilott’s career takes a strange trajectory when he’s approached by a farmer from his hometown of Parkersville, West Virginia. His name is Wilber Tennant, and he’s an acquaintance of Bilott’s grandmother. Tennant is asking Bilott for help, because he’s become convinced that the DuPont corporation is responsible for poisoning his land and his cows thanks to illegally dumping things in a landfill near his home that was supposed to just be for trash. Bilott attempts to brush Tennant off, but ends up visiting his farm to see what’s going on, and is indeed horrified at what’s happened to his cows, a staggering amount of them killed after being riddled with cancer and other health problems. This pushes Bilott to try and get some answers, attempting to leverage some relationships with people at DuPont that he and his firm know and work with. And, after some initially friendly back and forth, Bilott starts to realize that DuPont indeed has been dumping a poorly defined chemical in the landfill, without explaining to him what it is, and what it could possibly be doing to people.
And, after quite a bit of research and investigation, Robert Bilott learns a horrifying truth. DuPont, and several other companies, created a chemical in the years before the EPA existed, which DuPont marketed as Teflon. And, Teflon was incredibly dangerous to living creatures. They knew from the start, hiding quite a few worker deaths and deformed children, and kept hiding the runoff of the preparation of this chemical, especially in the landfill near Tennant’s home. Bilott then goes to war with DuPont, finding people in West Virginia that were willing to sue the chemical giant, creating a class action law suit in the hopes of getting the truth about the danger of Teflon, and all the various “forever chemicals” that DuPont has created and snuck past the EPA to the public.. And, they end up winning, getting the chance for the people of West Virginia to donate a sample of their blood for a health study. And, it works better than anyone could have hoped, getting a staggering amount of turnout. But, the process to confirm that these chemicals actually are terrible for human beings takes years to complete, and in the meantime DuPont continues to punish the people who found out the truth, hurting West Virginia, and driving Bilott into a state of weakened health after all the stress. And, when they finally get the damning results, DuPont attempts to go back on their legal promise to help the people who were harmed, causing Bilott to continue the struggle, eventually getting financial justice for the vast harm that DuPont has done to the people of West Virginia.
Dark Waters is a fairly formulaic film. We’ve had plenty of successful movies that follow a pretty similar format, and that usually end up being pretty popular. Evil companies are willing to hide the fact that what they’re doing is endangering the public, and it’s up to some brave whistle-blowers and lawyers to stand in the face of corporate giants, attempting to get some justice for the littler guys. It’s a formula that works, and it works well here. The story of DuPont and the whole Teflon scandal is something that would make for a pretty interesting documentary, and the film itself was based off of a New York Times Magazine article. But, it’s through Haynes’ direction and Mark Ruffalo’s absolutely stellar performance that brings this story to vivid life, taking it from the potentially dry technical aspects of the story and giving it a human life. Ruffalo has made a bit of a habit of playing these types of roles, these last decent men in the world roles, and he’s really good at it, giving a humanity to Robert Bilott, and showing us a man who sees something wrong, and essentially destroys his life in the process of righting that wrong. He becomes a professional, physical, and personal disaster, all to help people get the power to stand up to one of the biggest and most oppressive companies in the world. And by the end we get equal parts frustration that the world is still working like this, and a rallying cry to continue shattering as many of these companies as possible.
Because there’s always going to be corporations that realize that their bottom line is more important than human lives. It’s the sad reality that we live in, the assumed evil of all big business, finding ways to make life easier for some, while sacrificing others that the lucky few will never encounter. DuPont is a kind of cartoonishly evil company, essentially nothing I’ve ever learned about them has been good, and this film explains some of the most heinous things they’ve ever done. They created an unnatural chemical, knew that it gave birth defects and killed people, hid that information, lobbied to keep it hidden, and then continued using and hiding the chemicals, knowingly poisoning the world because there was money in it. And, yes, Bilott helped people. The truth was exposed, and DuPont handed out some money. But, it was a fraction of their profit. And, I’m sure there are plenty of more chemicals out there that are just as bad, if not worse, that we don’t know about. The film ends with the chilling statistic that it’s thought that something like 99% of living creatures on the planet have the chemical in their bodies at this point. And, we don’t know what that means. DuPont has poisoned the entire world, because there was money to be made. And that’s the world we live in. Corporate greed has irrevocably changed life on this planet, which is legitimately the scariest thing one can imagine.
Dark Waters was written by Mario Correa and Mathew Michael Carnahan, directed by Todd Haynes, and released by Focus Features, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk