When Oscar nominations are announced on January 13, Dark Waters will almost certainly receive none of them. The movie skipped the major fall festivals and passed through theaters as undetected as a cloudy water sample through the hands of a Trump EPA official. But on paper, the omission doesn’t make much sense. Dark Waters is the new film by a major director, Todd Haynes, whose work includes Carol, I’m Not There, Velvet Goldmine, and Far From Heaven — all of them Oscar nominees. It stars Mark Ruffalo as a crusading lawyer who takes on the system; in other words, it’s about something important: The willful poisoning of Americans by DuPont, a large chemical company.
Dark Waters is the latest in a long line of fact-based environmental dramas that revolve around a David (ordinary citizens equipped with kindly legal aid) and a Goliath (an infinitely bankrolled corporation supported by a phalanx of attorneys and politicians looking to squash any and all civil suits in their way). The 1998 film version of A Civil Action may have fallen short of the expectations raised by Jonathan Harr’s superb book about a contaminated aquifer in 1980s Woburn, Massachusetts, but it managed to snag Robert Duvall a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Two years later, Erin Brockovich turned a similar true story into a critical and commercial hit that won Julia Roberts an Oscar.
There were several meta-narratives around Erin Brockovich that helped account for its awards-season success, like Steven Soderbergh’s ascendance as a Hollywood director (this and Traffic came out the same year, earning him a near-unprecedented two Best Director nominations) and a comeback story of sorts for Roberts, who had yet to win an Academy Award. But the bottom line is that the film itself is deft entertainment — it takes a spoonful of sugar to make the hexavalent chromium go down. There’s suffering in the film, as there must be to trigger the lawsuit, but the conclusion is one of triumph, not just in the $333 million settlement that gets paid out to the plaintiffs, but in the personal arc of an unemployed single mother who muscles her way through a difficult case and gets a $2 million bonus for her troubles.
Dark Waters offers no such relief, even though it follows more or less the same legal journey, ending with Robert Bilott (Ruffalo), the corporate lawyer from Cincinnati who takes up the case against DuPont, winning his own massive class-action settlement. It’s one of the bleakest films of the year, treating the $671 million Bilott gets for his clients like a Band-Aid for victims who are already bleeding out. Working from Nathaniel Rich’s New York Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” Haynes and his screenwriters, Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, suggest that the die is cast. The plaintiffs may win financial restitution, but the “forever chemical” in their systems will never go away because the human body cannot break it down.
It can be difficult, at first glance, to understand why Haynes has made a relatively straightforward issue-based movie, given how much spin he usually puts on the ball. We expect queer-inflected throwbacks to the melodramas of old, like Far From Heaven, Mildred Pierce, and Carol, or highly conceptual music histories like Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Velvet Goldmine, and I’m Not There. Yet Dark Waters does work as a sober button to Safe, Haynes’s 1995 masterpiece about a housewife (Julianne Moore) whose life unravels after an “environmental illness” of vague origin and obscure remedy. Haynes locks into her disease as a wide-open metaphor for the emptiness of bourgeois life and the futility of self-help fixes, but it starts with her reacting to household chemicals. These unnatural products designed to bring cleanliness and order to her world wind up backfiring on her.
In Dark Waters, there’s nothing vague about the threat at all. The household product here is Teflon, a popular nonstick surface on pans and other cookware — a convenience that underscores what DuPont, the company that manufactured the compound, once called “Better Living Through Chemistry.” (That notorious slogan was modified in 1982, then dropped for “The Miracles of Science” in 1999.) As the film opens, Bilott gets summoned into action by Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, who claims a nearby DuPont landfill is responsible for the deaths of his cows. The cows have succumbed to bizarre medical conditions, signified by rotting teeth, mutated organs, and gruesome tumors, and Tennant’s farm, pockmarked by shallow graves, has become a mass burial site for 108 of them.
Bilott is used to friendly relationships with corporate clients like DuPont, but the more he pokes into the case, the more convinced he becomes that DuPont has knowingly and systematically poisoned the Ohio River and groundwater sources with an unregulated compound called PFOA-C8. When Bilott asks a chemistry expert about what might happen if you drink C-8, the question seems utterly alien to the man: “It’s like saying, ‘What if I swallowed a tire?’ You want to be the guy that finds out?” From there, Dark Waters becomes a legal procedural with the obsessive edge of David Fincher’s Zodiac — a lonely, yearslong quest to crack a case that’s gone cold for everyone else. The science isn’t easy, and DuPont isn’t here to help.
There are plenty of stock elements to Dark Waters — poor Anne Hathaway, in particular, gets stuck in the role of Long-Suffering Wife — but the film has more on its mind than delivering the satisfaction of the underdogs taking on Big Hydrophobic Fluorocarbon and winning. And one of those things is to deny that satisfaction almost completely. Haynes hasn’t made a movie about a chemical, but about a system: DuPont exposed West Virginians to C-8 because it thought, for good reason, that it could get away with it. It owns the local politicians and lawyers. It sponsors parks and community centers and Little League teams. It employs many people in Parkersburg and elsewhere — people who might lose those jobs if the company gets dinged with a billion-dollar lawsuit.
At the core of Dark Waters is the sinister implication that drinking poison is the devil’s bargain society has already struck, that we’re living off the forever chemicals of corporate malevolence and political corruption. The film notes that PFOA is in the blood of 99 percent of living things on earth, which is of course no guarantee of tumors to come, but a symbol of how much we’ve surrendered to a system that gambles with our lives. Ordinary people not only lack the financial leverage to push back, but a company like DuPont counts on pitting them against each other. When the Tennants and others become the public face of the suit, they’re treated less as crusaders than pariahs.
Turn down the sound on the film and it’s all there in Ed Lachman’s photography, a cancerous pall of deep blacks, perpetually overcast skies, and interiors that radiate the sickly yellow of fluorescent lights. (Though Lachman is Haynes’s frequent collaborator, he also happened to shoot Erin Brockovich, albeit in the slightly more flattering pallor of sun-scorched California.) Though Lachman had wanted to shoot on celluloid — the greatest of all forever chemicals — the digital look of Dark Waters is manipulated to make it seem like a horror movie, haunted by the oily sheen of polluted riverways and the rictus grins of kids whose teeth have been eroded by fluorides in their drinking water.
And perhaps therein lies Dark Waters’ real limitation during awards season: the despair at its heart. Movies that win Oscars are about overcoming adversity, not mitigating losses that can never turn into wins. Sure, Ruffalo provides a simmering ulcer of a performance and Lachman’s superb photography works in service of the plot, but following a decade that handed The King’s Speech and Green Book Best Picture bookends, it’s probably not surprising that a grim true-to-life tale isn’t getting recognition. After all, the message of Dark Waters is that you can’t even pick your poison.
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