“Corporations are sociopathic,” says Mark Ruffalo, who plays a crusading lawyer in Dark Waters. It seems the only language universally understood by the upper echelons of American big business, is that of money. Unresponsive to moral imperatives and human suffering, able to buy all the necessary political favours, the corporation can only be hurt by consumer boycotts, negative stockmarket sentiment, and unfavourable court decisions.
For Ruffalo this means that people who have been injured by big corporations need to sue them relentlessly. Yet what we see in this movie is sufficient to dissuade anyone from launching a lawsuit against a big corporation. It’s not enough to have justice on your side, or even a mountain of incontrovertible evidence. As lawyer, Mark Bilott, finds you need the patience of Job and the same willingness to endure indignities.
This is an unusual project for director, Todd Haynes, known for his nostalgic homages to Hollywood melodrama (Far From Heaven), or stories that bend the boundaries of gender roles (Poison, Velvet Goldmine). It was Ruffalo who came up with the idea for the film after reading an article in the New York Times. Haynes allowed himself to be convinced, before throwing himself into the task with his customary energy and eye for detail.
What has emerged is a recognisable genre film: the little man (or woman) takes on a big, bad, impersonal organisation in the face of overwhelming odds. The most famous example is probably Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich (2000), but there are plenty of others, most recently, Scott Z.Burns’s The Report (2019) in which a Senate staffer, Daniel J.Jones, challenges the might of the CIA.
The villain in this instance is the DuPont Chemical company, which has since merged with Dow Chemical inc. The hero is a pudgy, nondescript corporate lawyer who, prior to 1999, spent much of his professional life assisting businesses to get around onerous legislation. Life changed for Mark Bilott when he received a visit from Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia. The recommendation had come from Bilott’s grandmother who lived in the town, but it seemed wildly inappropriate.
Tennant had come to enlist Bilott’s assistance against DuPont, a corporate giant that Bilott’s law firm, Taft, had been trying to woo for years. In the lead-up, we’ve already seen how cosy Bilott is with the DuPont CEO, Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber).
When Bilott goes to visit Tennant’s farm it’s largely as a favour to his grandmother. He’s quite unprepared for what he finds: namely a cow graveyard, and a dwindling herd of sick, crazed animals. Tennant shows him gruesome samples taken from dead cattle – enlarged organs, and jawbones with blackened teeth, which he blames on a polluted water source. Any visitor might also be alarmed by Tennant’s eyebrows, which seem to have mutated into two large shrubs.
Shaken, but convinced there must be some misunderstanding, Bilott tracks down Donnelly and asks if he’ll send the farmer a copy of a report the company has written, but kept under wraps.
When Bilott discovers that the report denies any responsibility for the problem and blames Tennant’s poor farming practices, he knows this is not credible. Now caught up in the story, he almost apologetically sues DuPont for the relevant files relating to health and safety at the plant. The files arrive, box after box, until they fill an entire room. It’s a scene almost identical with the massive volume of paper the CIA dumps on Daniel Jones in The Report. It’s intended to be overwhelming and disheartening, but Bilott, like Jones, rolls up his sleeves and starts reading.
The more he reads, the more sinister the story becomes, especially when he begins to find out about PFAs, an indestructible chemical compound used in the manufacture of teflon. Not only does he encounter horror stories of DuPont treating its employees like guinea pigs, he realises the entire town has probably been poisoned by PFAs.
This is only the beginning of Bilott’s discoveries, and his trials. The case becomes a massive legal wrangle, in which he attracts the hostility of the people who live Parkersburg and owe their livelihood to DuPont. Meanwhile the saga is absorbing all the lawyer’s time and energy, making him a pariah at work and a zombie at home. The Todd Haynes touch is evident in the orchestration of unfolding tensions between Bilott and his wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway), and the difficulties with his boss, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins). Haynes is also good with the eerie, gothic scenes at the farm, and those moments of paranoia that make Bilott feel he is losing his health and his mind.
It will take years before Bilott begins to achieve results, and we are made to feel every moment. But the passing of time also allows the accumulation of new knowledge about PFAs, which are not simply confined to Parkersburg, but spread throughout the entire planet. It’s estimated that nearly every human being and animal carries PFAs, which have been spread through water and the food chain.
The actions Bilott initiated are ongoing. DuPont – or the rebranded company known as Chemours – is still making teflon, and still claiming they have been mispresented in the media. Whatever its dangers the product remains hugely profitable, offsetting the millions being paid out in one lawsuit after another.
The Trump administration has now gutted an Environmental Protection Agency that was already a feeble defence against large-scale polluters, effectively protecting companies that deal in harmful products and act as ecological vandals. Dark Waters wants us to know we are all at the mercy of corporations that will poison everyone in the name of short-term gain. It’s true they create jobs, but as the citizens of Parkersburg found, is that a good trade-off for various forms of cancer and birth deformities? It all depends on your share portfolio.
Directed by Todd Haynes
Written by Mario Correa & Matthew Michael Carnahan, after a New York Times article by Nathaniel Rich
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Bill Camp, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Victor Garber, Bill Pullman, Mare Winningham
USA, rated M, 126 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 7 March, 2020