review: ‘dark waters’

Dark Waters is the incredible true story of how a corporate defense lawyer takes on an ecological litigation case against a biochemical company once he discovers that their negligent actions have resulted in a lengthy account of fatal contaminations through toxic waste methods deemed to be hazardous to public health. This film is undoubtedly one of the top 10 most important movies made in 2019, as environmental lawyer Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) who works for the prominent firm Taft, Stettinius & Hollister, formerly known as Taft, the real-life partnership based out of Cincinnati, Ohio, becomes intrigued to take on a lawsuit once Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) a farmer from West Virginia, visits Rob at his offices, based on a referral from his neighbor, Rob’s grandmother. At first, Rob is reluctant to take on the case or view any of the videos Tennant has dropped off. Once Rob travels to West Virginia, Tennant shows him massive stones in the water that have bleached surfaces to which he claims are due to toxic waste. Wilbur Tennant is only getting Rob primed, he takes him to an earth burial plot on his vast land where he’s laid to rest 190 calves who died from drinking water that was polluted from the Du Pont chemical plant’s toxic waste of where his property crosses paths in the landfill. Hundreds of young domestic cattle have been put to the ground and Wilbur Tennant demands justice.

Rob Bilott visits Du Pont executive Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) who tells him that he’s utterly oblivious of the claims and unaffectedly offers to lend a helping hand, by providing Rob with an inspection report to which he takes to Tennant to show proof that it wasn’t their wrongdoing. Tennant dismisses everything Rob says, which forces him to uncover a mystery that’s been knowingly kept under wraps. Du Pont had been fully aware of their concealment of illegal behavior. The firm-wide chairman and managing partner at Taft, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), is initially opposed to Rob’s proposal to move forward with the lawsuit, but after some convincing, he gives the go ahead, which leads Rob down a dark investigation in unraveling dozens of banker’s box’s filled with files where he examines the minutiae to decipher the roots of Du Pont’s criminality. Rob believes with conviction that Du Pont has violated their hazardous waste policies with the United States Environmental Protection Agency. “The EPA only started regulating chemicals since 1976. What if the reason is, he knows whatever’s in that landfill is unregulated?” Rob says, while digging deep to bring truth to a conspiracy in sacrificing his career in attempt to takedown a chemical plant that possesses vast sums of money.

Rob’s wife Sarah Barlage Billot, in a role performed outstandingly by Anne Hathaway, begins to doubt Rob and his relentless pursuit. She fears for his personal health and the longevity of his career, should he continue to move forward with the case. Rob is a protagonist we root for; we want to see him succeed. His courage is inspiring. Rob continues to dig deep, and meets with Dr. Gillespie (John Newberg) who educates him on chemistry acronyms such as the long-chain fluorocarbon; a series of carbon atoms made of fluoride. Rob learns that excessive levels of fluoride is in the Tennant family’s drinking water, damaging their bodies and deforming their teeth. Rob digs even deeper, and discovers that Du Pont made a pan called Teflon, which caused physical and internal deformities in men, women and children in the 1960s until the present-day. Du Pont threw the muck in the form of thousands of tons in toxic chemical waste down the depths of despair, permanently contaminating America with a chemical compound known as Perfluorooctanoic acid, also called C8 (a chain of 8 fluorocarbons), a manmade chemical that is used to make non-stick pan coatings like Teflon. Rob reveals this information to the chairman of his firm, Tom, his wife Sarah, the Du Pont executive Phil, and finally Wilbur Tennant, that, this compound known as C8, stays inside our bodies indefinitely since our systems cannot break it down. Du Pont was benefitting financially from their products which resulted in a massive cover-up. This is only the tip of the iceberg, we’ve barely scratched the surface of this phenomenal film.

Dark Waters is a film directed by Todd Haynes (Carol, Wonderstruck), who tells this story with efficiency. The creative editing transition while keeping character voice overs and audio effects on the soundtrack are outstanding, especially in a sequence when Rob reveals his discovery of the corruption with Du Pont, explaining his findings to everyone who doubted him. The picture editing moves from character to character as Rob makes the declarations. The film’s editor, Alfonso Goncalves (Paterson) and Todd Haynes use every frame in this film with a purpose that progresses the story. They show us a frame when Rob’s attention is caught off-guard as he drives passed Tennant’s daughter, riding her bicycle on the city street, smiling at him with her black teeth. Later in the film, after asking Dr. Gillespie what affects fluorocarbon can have on the human body if consumed, he answers that it can cause your teeth to turn black. Though this film is ultimately a biographical drama, Todd Haynes employs elements of mystery and suspense through his use of sound and editing. The cinematographer, Edward Lachman (Erin Brockovich, Selena) captures an ominous atmosphere of dark clouds and a dreary overcast in conjunction with earthly tones with hues of greens and blues, suitable to the film’s subject matter, title and overall theme. His use of gloomy lighting techniques supported the narrative without dampening the overall experience of watching the film.

Dark Waters is a film about integrity, environmental health and persevering even when the odds are against you. Mark Ruffalo gave an inspirational performance and was eloquent in his speech as his character provided compelling arguments that were unable to be counterattacked. Dark Waters is an imperative film telling us the true story of a relentless attorney who endured twenty years of hardship in the face of a corrupt and avaricious corporation who permanently caused harm to humanity. Overall, Dark Waters is unquestionably one of the best films of 2019 and deserves a round of applause.

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