Dark Waters



11 December 2019| No Comments on Dark Waters     by Sean Chavel


The film had ended and I knew it wasn’t any ordinary selfish corporate entity poisoning water muckraker. I had been riled up and entertained by “Erin Brockovich” and enlightened by the underrated “A Civil Action” in the past. But as I toddled out of the theater exit doors, I stumbled onto a bench and looked out. I had looked out at the parking lot slopes and malls beyond, and looked some more. Perhaps I was waiting for another person who just saw Dark Waters to come by so we could strike up a conversation about it. I waited, but got cold. I went to my car, but I felt paralyzed. I was unable to start the car. Usually I see a movie, and I’m in a mandatory rush to get back to whatever real thing I got going. Obligations, responsibilities, errands. But I realized I was too shook up to drive. I have been shaken before at the end of “Detroit” in 2017, or “Elephant” in 2003. I succumbed to just sit there, which I relented and permitted myself to. I had plenty to think about, and after a half hour to compose my thoughts, only then was I ready to start the ignition and move on.

We already have enough issues to concern ourselves with in contemporary times. A current President who obstructs justice, our country’s broken agreement with Geneva convention, caged children at the border, foreign powers influencing the divide of political parties in-country. Bombarded by everything happening, I didn’t go into Dark Waters thinking it would be the most important movie of the year. But stunningly, it is about a real life case of corporate malfeasance at the highest levels that by the end seems to, in reckoning, tie together with every major problem going on, I believe. 

I imagine everyone involved with the making of the film must have thought, This Is Going To Be Unpopular, but it has to be said and the appalling message must be spread.

Mark Ruffalo (who also served as producer) as Robert Billot has a prestigious attorney job for a dreamy wood paneled and high floor window West Virginia firm. He falls into a case representing an uneducated farmer with a redneck vernacular (Bill Camp, and I don’t want to get too caught up discussing the acting but what a searing performance he gives; likely to go unnoticed by awards circuits), who claims that the livestock of his that has been dying is due to contamination waste dumped from DuPont.

That’s a toxic pollutants in waters issue, which in itself, is enough to fire your anger even if you’ve been dragged through that similar story before. But no, the scandal and impropriety runs much deeper than that, and before Dark Waters is over, you’re sure that you and everyone you’ve ever known has been poisoned at one point of your life or another. What’s at stake is all inter-connected. 

This is one of those legal dramas where the lawyer digs through countless files before he comes up what he’s looking for, and Dark Waters does an exceptional task at constructing — we see the case building its significance before our eyes. Billot discovers what PFOA or C8 is, it’s a hard to destruct and impervious chemical that was created for military tanks until in 1962 the chemical process was adopted by DuPont to instill in everyday items. First things first: You will see this movie and throw out all Teflon items from your kitchen, pronto.

Long-gestated EPA reports finally were released that linked over exposed volumes of PFOA with kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, etc. after DuPont toxic chemicals, through their products, found a way to pervade American life.

For many who worked at their factories, they developed fast-acting cancer and birth defects in their offspring. The film has one failure: To deny telling us what kind of neurological effects exposure to PFOA has on brain activity. I wonder why people fail to vote smartly in this country, or have the lack of cognition to understand certain proposition measures that will disadvantage themselves with the wrong vote, or wonder why some people lack empathy. Perhaps it is because PFOA has compromised brain development in young minds? 

Back to ordinary movie critiquing…. Yes, when it comes to story structure and form Dark Waters has the same ingredients as many that come before it. Billot has a nagging and skeptical wife played by Anne Hathaway, and he has children that he ignores. The family members have their arcs and eventual positive input. Billot has rapport with the little guys in this world whom are either disciples for the cause or in their impatience castigate this lawyer with ingratitude even after all the work that he puts in on the case with the complaint that he has not done enough.

Dark Waters was directed by Todd Haynes following a career of either avante-garde experiments (“I’m Not There”) or disheartening character studies of non-conformists trapped in a rigid past era (“Carol”). My initial first hour impression was Haynes has brought a workmanlike ethic to a fight the system populist message movie. That is only deceptively so. As it unfurls into the second hour, Dark Waters blackens and compresses its hero into tighter spaces, and Haynes enshrouds a certain nagging paranoia not just around our hero but to taint everything, I mean everything, so we feel the significance of the entire society/environmental/industrial corrupt web, i.e., this particular story itself is a microcosm for all that ills from corporate and political craven greed. The yukkiness of what Dupont and other companies like them have done is there and it can not be shaken off, wedded with a helplessness and exhaustion that even a good deed lawyer is adrift in a neverending fight.

To say Dark Waters is a must see call to arms must make me sound like I’m one of those the sky is falling kind of liberal virtue signalers. I don’t want to be mistaken for the shallow version of that guy. Here, I just want to bluntly say, see this movie and decide for yourself if it’s important. Or maybe I want more people to see this because I just don’t want to be alone in my anger.

127 Minutes. Rated PG-13.


Film Cousins: “Silkwood” (1983); “Safe” (1995); “A Civil Action” (1998); “The Insider” (1999); “Erin Brockovich” (2000); “The Corporation” (2003).

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of flickminute.com, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.


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