A David v Goliath story that concerns all of us. Watch and learn.

Direction:Todd Haynes
Screenplay:Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan, Nathaniel Rich
Cast:Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp,
Victor Garber, Bill Pullman
Length:126 minutes
Rating:12A

On 19 November 2018, BBC Four broadcast an international documentary under its Storyville strand called ‘Poisoning America: The Devil We Know’. 

As horrifying as it was infuriating, this film burned itself into my memory in its exposure of deliberate contamination and abhorrent exploitation by the financially blinded controllers of the DuPont chemical corporation against its own workforce, the state and the country. Not content with knowingly poisoning America, however, DuPont has poisoned every living creature on the planet. ‘Dark Waters’ dramatises this frightening story to excellent effect.

Robert Billot (Ruffalo) is a corporate defence attorney for chemical companies. Adapted from the 2016 The New York Times article ‘The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare’, he enters the story in 1998 Cincinnati, Ohio where he is approached by farmer Wilbur Tennant (Camp) from his home state whose livestock has been almost annihilated. 

While gesturing to the cow graveyard that was once his farmland, Tennant informs Billot at the scene of the crime that he has lost 190 cows before shooting another twice in the head as it charges them both uncontrollably. 

Mark Ruffalo as Mark Billot and Bill Camp as Wilbur Tennant | © 2020 Focus Features. A Comcast Company.

We follow one man as he takes on an empire and its structure in an attempt to breakthrough the conspiracy of silence and subterfuge. If you think exposing the secrets of a corporation you once used to defend would be easy, think again. If DuPont thought that an information dump of thousands of paper files would be enough to put him off, they were wrong. Indeed, the cardboard boxes containing these files fill an entire room at the law firm, evoking the maze of Area 51 as featured in the first and fourth Indiana Jones films. A room with no view.

What Billot discovers is actually unbelievable. According to DuPont themselves, PFOA-C8 is an unregulated forever chemical that the body can’t break down so it can’t leave the bloodstream allowing it to accumulate over time. It causes cancer in people and animals and birth defects in babies, including those of the women that worked there. It is used in the manufacture of Telfon, used on non-stick pans.

DuPont conducted experiments on people and animals with this chemical without their knowledge and all developed cancer. DuPont disposed of hundreds of gallons of toxic waste upriver from Tennant’s farm.  

Victor Garber as Phil Donnelly and Tim Robbins as Tom Terp on the set of ‘Dark Waters’ | © 2020 Focus Features. A Comcast Company.

As the film progresses both he and his wife become wheelchair bound as each develops cancer. He too, dies of the disease. One wonders what exactly the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was doing.

After all the evidence was sent to them and the Department of Justice, the EPA fined DuPont $16.5million. Teflon profits alone were $1billion per year. The court found that DuPont knew about the life threatening effects of PFOA-C8 since the 1970s, but covered up the evidence to maintain profits, behaviour more in common with an act of terrorism than corporate wrongdoing.  Consequently, PFOA can be found in 99% of human beings alive today.

At one point in ‘Dark Waters’, we learn that complainants have only one year to file suit after learning their water supply has been contaminated. DuPont dispatched letters to West Virginia informing residents that while the water wasn’t perfect it wasn’t life threatening 11 months before leaving Billot and his colleagues only one month to act.

In a scene of striking resemblance, we learn exactly the same information from the 2000 film ‘Erin Brockovich’ where Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) was to blame, exhibiting proof that this evil manipulation of lives is still occurring at the highest level of business two decades on. 

Man in a car
‘Dark Waters’ Film Poster – © 2017 FOCUS FEATURES. A COMCAST COMPANY.

Assuredly directed by Todd Haynes, ‘Dark Waters’ is a cerebral exploration that unfolds in chronological order over 40 years. Slow pacing and a limited character count keep this story leisurely and focused, allowing us to process the events taking place before us. Unsurprisingly, we are confronted with a capitalist culture of greed; profits at all costs with complete disrespect for humanity and the environment. What is surprising is the unfathomable scale of these high crimes and misdemeanours at a corporation who in the very act of poisoning others, would be poisoning themselves as well.  

What is most impressive (nay, inspiring) is the dedication and resilience of Billot as he battles Donnelly at the corporation and Tom Terp (Robbins) at the firm relentlessly and restlessly. In fact, the stress of such work on his marriage and finances inflicts a minor stroke, landing him in hospital. With the support of his wife Sarah (Hathaway) he continues.

It was only five years ago that DuPont finally settled the class action law suit for $671million, but only after they attempted to default on their agreement to compensate victims forcing Billot to fight each case against them in the class action one by one. After the first three victims were awarded over $1million each, DuPont reconsidered.

Anne Hathaway as Sarah Billot | © 2020 Focus Features. A Comcast Company.

Anchored by Ruffalo (also the film’s producer), Camp and Hathaway, all of whom deliver fine performances, Dark Waters benefits immensely from its composer Marcelo Zarvos and cinematographer Edward Lachman. Light country music while driving cross-country is interspersed with dark war horns in the multi-storey car park (the de facto location for general foreboding while uncovering conspiracies) interpreting the humble car as both practical commodity and potential coffin. 

In contrast to ‘Erin Brockovich’ with its warm summer tones, the winter setting of ‘Dark Waters’ makes the already bleak subject matter even bleaker creating an atmosphere of near constant cold monotone even David Fincher would be proud of. So cold. Just like hard cash.

While an outstanding production, Dark Waters was only nominated for two Satellite Awards (Best Actor and Adapted Screenplay), the only attention the film received from any major awards body during the entire awards season.

It should have received far more recognition than it did. A shameful oversight. 

While nine films were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture this year, the category can have ten nominees. For all of these reasons, I rate this film five stars. 

I urge you to watch the Storyville documentary.