Dark Waters was released in the UK a few weeks before Lockdown for COVID in 2020. I remember seeing the trailer and thinking that I might go to see it. My interest was roused by Mark Ruffalo in the lead for a film directed by Todd Haynes. I’ve finally managed to catch it on BBC iPlayer where it will be available in the UK for the next 6 days. If you get the chance to catch it I would recommend the film, though not perhaps as a fun Friday night movie.
The film has a prologue set in 1975 in which three young people in Parkersburg, West Virginia go skinny-dipping one night in a local river until they are driven off by men in a motorboat, spraying the water which has a slick of foam. The young people had been laughing about having their hair washed in the water. The narrative proper starts in 1998 when Rob Bilott, a defence attorney working for a law practice in Cincinnati which handles corporate cases is approached by a farmer put on to him by Rob’s grandmother in Parkersburg. He claims that his land is being poisoned by the chemical giant Du Pont and his cattle are dying. Bilott is shocked but initially reluctant to get involved. He has just been made a partner of the firm and Du Pont are potential clients. But when he realises the farm is close to where he played as a child on holiday, he goes to see for himself and eventually he decides to help. Over the next eighteen years he will engaged in a titanic struggle with Du Pont as well as suffering from the stress built up by worrying about his family and his situation in the practice as well as potential criticism from the people of Parkersburg – Du Pont is a powerful company and a major employer in the region. Eventually he will need to hit the company with a ‘class action’, a legal case on behalf of thousands of individuals whose lives might have been put at risk.
The film is classifiable as an ‘eco legal thriller’, alongside films like Erin Brockovich (US 2000) and Civil Action (US 1988) in dealing with chemical pollution of water supply. I think that the ‘nuclear danger’ thrillers such as Silkwood (US 1983) and China Syndrome (US 1979) are different for various reasons, including national security and the direct impact on workers, but primarily because the central characters are not lawyers. Similarly a film like Night Moves (US 2013) focuses on activists. Perhaps a more useful link is to Michael Mann’s The Insider (US 1999) in which Russell Crowe plays a ‘whistleblower’ taking on ‘Big Tobacco’. This is a genuine male-focused melodrama in which the corporations use every tactic to discredit the whistleblower and to force him to be quiet.
The legal aspect means that as well as the central role for lawyers, this is a specifically American genre because of what from a UK perspective appear to be the excesses of the US legal system. Obviously there are cases of threats to communities from corporate action in other countries, but the legal systems (and regulatory systems) are significantly different. Dark Waters and similar American narratives tend to feature a relatively lowly ‘David’ like figure fighting corporate defence teams and one of the most common images is said lawyer wading through seemingly endless boxes of evidence. Todd Haynes and Mark Ruffalo certainly have to find ways to keep us interested in what is not a very dramatic or visually interesting element in the narrative. These stories, especially those based on real cases like this, also have to deal with elongated narrative timelines.
Perhaps the main point made by several critics and reviewers is that this is not the kind of film we expect from Todd Haynes. The only films in the Haynes filmography that I know well are what I would see as his melodramas, Far From Heaven (US 2002) and Carol (US 2015). I also remember him being interviewed about his passion for Fassbinder and Sirk. The ‘eco legal thriller’ does have a potentially important melodrama element. In Erin Brockovich it is focused on Erin (Julia Roberts) herself, a woman who triumphs through her dogged pursuit of the culprits in a water supply contamination case which puts her into a working relationship with an avuncular lawyer figure played by Albert Finney. Social class conflict is an important element of that film and it also appears in Dark Waters, but without Roberts’ star power, Haynes has a lot to do to engage us in the melodrama aspects of the story.
I did note that the cinematographer on Dark Waters is Ed Lachman who also shot Erin Brockovich and has worked on several films with both Todd Haynes and Steven Soderbergh who directed the earlier film. In this case, Lachman has a very different task compared to his presentation of the bright, dusty Southern California milieu of Erin Brockovich. Rob Bilott moves between Cincinatti and West Virginia, from the city high-rise buildings to the landfills and run-down industrial town of Parkersburg. I’d need more time to do his work justice, but he does make the contrast real and palpable. West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the union with a long history of the oppression of labour by corporations established elsewhere. It used to be mining (see John Sayles’ Matewan, 1987). Rob Bilott is mocked for being associated with the state and the country music soundtrack is important. The closing titles sequence has Johnny Cash singing Tom Petty’s ‘I Won’t Back Down’ (with Petty, I think) from 2000 and it is very affecting.
The surprise is that Todd Haynes is faced with a script by three writers, Nathaniel Rich, Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan (based on an original New Yorker Times magazine article by Rich) which doesn’t develop the potential of the part of Bilott’s wife played by Anne Hathaway. Her role seems under-written (and some reviewers feel she possibly overplays it to get herself some attention). I think she is supposed to be a woman who gave up her job as a lawyer to become a housewife and mother to three boys. The birth of the first child is a story element because Bilott is investigating the impact of pollution on pregnancies. But the marital pressures are underplayed I feel.
Against this the film has two great strengths. One is Ruffalo’s performance in a role that requires him to be to gradually sink under pressure and to gradually succumb to the ill health the workload puts on him. The other strength is the universality of the pollution threat itself. 98% of the world’s population has some of Du Pont’s synthetic chemical PFOA-C8 in their bloodstream. As Bilott discovers, it was the release of ‘Teflon’, promoted as a miracle material improving a whole range of household and personal products in the 1960s, that made Du Pont millions but also led to pollution and contamination. I remember when my mother bought her first non-stick pan in the mid 1960s and later when I decided never again to buy non-stick cooking utensils. I must have read something. What I didn’t know was that Gore-Tex, found on my waterproof jackets and shoes, also used the same chemical component up to 2013.
Dark Waters is a sober and sometimes sombre film that tells a story we all should be aware of. There is also a documentary released in 2018, The Devil We Know, which was shown as part of the BBC’s Storyville Documentary programme strand. Dupont supposedly stopped using PFOA-C8 in 2014 and settled the claims in the class action brought by Bilott after 2016, but one of its subsidiaries was found to have contaminated a river in North Carolina in 2017 with a similar chemical. Dark Waters sometimes feels like those ‘paranoia thrillers’ of the early 1970s such as The Parallax View (US 1974) in which the heroic investigators are overwhelmed by the faceless agents of corporate America and their political allies. But if nothing else, Dark Waters has cost Du Pont something in payouts and has forced certain policy changes and a restructuring of the corporation. We all need to be more vigilant.