The state of West Virginia is politically as red as a hooker’s lipstick. Even its Democratic senator Joe Manchin votes with Trump sixty-one percent of the time. In one sense you can’t blame the folks who live there. They are in a state that immediately brings to mind the term “coal miners.” People who have served in that dangerous job for generations are running out of options now that coal has been displaced by other energy sources, and they think that Trump will bring back their jobs. The small farmers as well, a generally conservative segment of society, are mostly Republicans, though they have been thrown under the boss by Trump who is fighting a losing trade war with China, the largest customer of their soybeans. Small farmers and others in the state were awakened when the lies and evil deeds of one corporation, DuPont, caused havoc with their land, their cows, and with the very health of the God-fearing human beings who live there. Like the cigarette companies who have known for decades that their product causes cancer, DuPont, a chemical giant, dumped thousands of tons of toxic waste in landfills surrounding the farms knowing that the stuff is carcinogenic. Todd Haynes, whose “Safe” takes on the plight of a housewife who develops an extreme sensitivity to chemicals, is in his métier, dealing now with an entire people afflicted with the carcinogenic sludge thrown at them by DuPont.

How does a corporate attorney whose white shoe firm defends big corporations manage to dedicate seventeen years of his life to fighting a giant industry? We’re not exactly sure but we do see that Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is incensed by what is being doe to the little guy beginning when a farmer in Parkersburg, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), barges into the Cincinnati law office requesting, or rather demanding, that Rob take the case. At first Rob is aghast that this fellow seeks out him of all people, but Wilbur has been referred to Rob by the lawyer’s grandmother. That’s a good enough start. For the rest of the story, Rob’s firm, particularly its managing partner Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), is at first hesitant, then going whole hog to support him. Later on as the case drags on for seventeen years, Tom is not so sure, but he does cut Rob’s pay four times because clients are no longer willing to work with him.

Supported by his pious wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) who later regrets what her husband is doing—ruining his health, losing money that keeps the increasing brood of children happy—she becomes almost ballistic as she sees her compulsive partner’s health deteriorating. DuPont does what big corporations do when sued. Though they sometimes settle, this times DuPont fights with its team of corporate lawyers against the farmers. The rest of the movie deals with the year-by-year accumulations of road blocks that the chemical giant puts in the way of the plaintiff. In one instance, responding to a discovery motion, DuPont sends some fifty large boxes of document to the law office.

The culmination of the story should not be a surprise, because this narrative film is based on actual events in which DuPont agrees to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to the people whose health has deteriorated because of the carcinogenic chemical PFOA, which since 2013 is no longer being used to manufacture Teflon. If there is an element of John Grisham in the story—that best-selling author often finishing up with ironic endings (e.g. an insurance company that has lost a case files bankruptcy, shafting the plaintiffs), it is that many of the plaintiffs have died from exposure to PFOA.

Mark Ruffalo’s performance is spot on. The make-up department has increased his weight as the story moves on, Ruffalo’s puffy face brought on perhaps by the way his determination to dedicate half of his life to the case upends his need for physical activity. In the tradition of Norma Rae, Matewan, and Silkwood, “Dark Waters” is a strong, sober inclusion in the David-and-Goliath category of fights against the evils of companies that have known that they are wrong and have refused to admit their guilt.

126 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Focus Features
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Todd Haynes
Screenwriter: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan, based on the NY Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Bill Camp, Victor Garber
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/1/19
Opens: December 6, 2019

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+

By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *