By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – December 12, 2019)
Sometimes, the sum of a project is better than its individual parts, and sometimes, one of the parts exceeds any other equation. As interesting and sobering as Dark Waters is, this is a movie that would be virtually nothing without the performance of Mark Ruffalo, and also without Bill Camp. While it may garner some award attention as a movie, it’s Ruffalo who has a real chance to walk away with some hardware. Sometimes it’s okay for a movie to simply be good, even if it isn’t earth shattering. I wasn’t bored, but I felt I had seen something like it before, because we all have. That’s not a knock on the movie. It’s a knock on how often this kind of thing happens in society.
This is a true story of corporate greed and absence of care for the general population with an Erin Brockovich feel, but it’s a story that’s been out there for quite some time. Robert Bilott, a Cincinnati defense attorney that often defends large companies, ends up on the other side due to a connection to the West Virginia town he grew up in, in which a friend of his family is experiencing massive death of cattle on his farm. DuPont’s now infamous “Teflon” is the cuprit, thanks to chained carbons and all sorts of science that you just listen to, hear the effects of, and accept as being not good.
The movie itself is very good, but Ruffalo makes you pay attention and root so hard for Bilott. I found myself surprised that his marriage didn’t completely fall apart, because shockingly, he didn’t end up divorced and passed out in a field somewhere after falling into alcoholism. Here, he was a crusader who became, as the 2016 Nathaniel Rich article in New York Times Magazine originally called him, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare.” It’s that piece, along with an article from a few years prior and Bilott’s own book chronicling his decades fighting DuPont, that explain why Dark Waters exists.
This story stinks, in that I imagine the chemicals and the decaying cow corpses and blackened teeth and cancer outbreaks legitimately stunk, but it stinks because it happened. I haven’t read the articles, but I plan to, and I grew up in Martinsville, Virginia, the son of a man who worked for DuPont’s main competitor in textiles in our area. It had many names, changing due to buyouts, but now you know it as Fruit of the Loom. I was always familiar with DuPont as a name, I knew nylon well and I heard about things, but I was too young to really know any of what was happening surrounding this case, deformed fetuses, birth defects, and a corporation that knowingly dumped unbelievable levels of toxic sludge into Parkersburg waters and caused unthinkable calamity.
Ruffalo is the star, he’s the centerpiece, but he’s surrounded by talent that only buttresses his own performance, including Anne Hathaway as his wife, Sara, and Tim Robbins, managing partner of his law firm, Tom Terp. However, it’s the victim that started it all, farmer Wilbur Tennant, who has the other noteworthy performance here. Bill Camp is just outstanding, even if you need subtitles to understand some of his drawl. That feels incredibly authentic to the character, who though I’ve never met, I feel I have based on Camp’s work. Talking about Ruffalo is warranted, without question, but avoiding Camp is inexcusable in this case.
Victor Garber plays friend, then enemy Phil Donnelly, who represents DuPont, and he hits the balance needed to be a colleague, then an adversary, and when the switch flips, BOY does it ever flip with intensity. You’ll hate DuPont, which is by design, and what I still want to research is what might be different about Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan’s treatment, or what DuPont might have said through the years about some of the story itself. It was a lifesaving idea that became a disaster and now eleven digits worth of money given out to victims and other related entities.
The film reminds of many others, but most to Michael Mann’s The Insider in how it plays out more with a thriller vibe, complete with a bleak Marcelo Zarvos score that makes you think a DuPont bagman is going to murder Bilott’s family or kill Wilbur’s wife. That said, it often feels like it’s beat the clock, despite the fact that it spans decades and even today, Rob Bilott is still battling DuPont in court. Somehow, the movie creates suspense in a slow moving legal fight that even leaves the 70,000 plus that took blood tests wondering if there would EVER be resolution in the case, whether financial or otherwise.
It leaves a bad taste in your mouth, and it’s not the PFOA in the water. You want to see DuPont pay, and they do, but again, a loss of life or the magnitude and degree of cancer diagnoses in the area exceed any price tag. Ruffalo and Camp are the reasons it’s worth seeing, because reading and researching would take you to the same conclusion, perhaps with more detail, but Dark Waters is a well-done version of events that will leave you furious and eager to learn more, if you missed all the coverage when the case first hit the mainstream. It’s not one that demands being seen on the largest, loudest screen possible, but will hold your attention when you inevitably stream it in a year or two.