Todd Haynes’ courtroom thriller Dark Waters (2019) is by far the most important film of recent years and tells of a chemical scandal whose consequences each of us is feeling at this very second. We reveal more about this in our review.
OT: Dark Waters (USA 2019)
The plot summary
Cincinnati, 1998. Successful business lawyer Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) finds himself in a dilemma when two farmers alert him to strange goings-on in Parkersburg, West Virginia, where a large number of cows have mysteriously died. The farmers suspect that this is the chemical company DuPont, for which Bilott himself works as a lawyer. Despite this conflict of interest, the conscientious lawyer wants to investigate the case without reservation and quickly finds incriminating evidence that points to an environmental scandal of enormous proportions. Supported by his boss Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) and his wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway), Bilott self-sacrificingly plunges into a lengthy dispute that could cost him his reputation, his health, private happiness and perhaps even his life…
Dark Waters Movie Meaning & ending
The fact that the legal thriller Dark Waters, which was released in US cinemas almost a year ago, received almost no mention in the 2020 awards season (Todd Haynes’ directorial work only won best film at three largely insignificant film festivals, among other things nominated), at first glance it seems like one of many omissions in recent years. Not every really good film can win an Oscar. But in this case, this omission becomes more serious when you consider the scale of the chemical disaster portrayed here after the grueling 126 minutes. At first glance it is “only” about contaminated drinking water; bad enough when you consider how many healthy human lives this catastrophe alone claimed. But the affected EI du Pont de Nemours and Company – one quickly realizes that the group is only representative of the sinister machinations of various large chemical companies – has influence on pretty much every sector of the world’s economy and strives to make every failure, no matter how obvious, no matter how bad the consequences – remains under wraps. If necessary, he has endless (!) financial resources from which he can draw to settle claims for damages and compensation amounting to billions. The fact that “Poisoned Truth” neither received a major advertising campaign nor caused a stir at film awards and festivals is most certainly thanks to the chemical lobby itself; Because you can’t and don’t want to mess with her. Unless you’re business lawyer Rob Billot, whose David vs. Goliath story is Todd Haynes (“Carol”) told in Dark Waters.
Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) tells Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) about his dead cows.
At least the word “Teflon” should ring alarm bells for most viewers: The non-stick coating on frying pans found its way into households around the world almost 80 years ago and was (rightly) presented by the industry as a huge innovation. Then the scandal: Polytetrafluoroethylene, a semi-crystalline polymer made of fluorine and carbon that prevents food from burning on the bottom of the pan – i.e. creates the same Teflon effect – is highly toxic because it releases carcinogenic substances at temperatures of around 202 degrees. The manufacturer of the very first Teflon pan: DuPont. To date, the company has done a lot of work to put the scientifically proven danger into perspective; Much higher temperature limits are now being communicated. The fact that this is window dressing and that every viewer of Dark Waters will probably get rid of their Teflon pan after going to the cinema is, however, only a side note, because the film is actually about something completely different still bigger scandal. And by now it should be clear to you what kind of controversial spheres we are moving into here. Just this much: At the end of the film, a text panel tells us that 99 percent of all living things on earth have residues of non-degradable chemicals in their bodies. A realization that you have to let sink in first.
“The fact that Dark Waters neither received a major advertising campaign nor caused a stir at film awards and festivals is most certainly thanks to the chemical lobby itself; Because you can’t and don’t want to mess with her.”
It goes without saying that Dark Waters is not a pleasant film given this premise. But Todd Haynes, who has already dabbled in pretty much every genre with “I’m not here,” “Carol” and “Wonderstruck,” still makes every effort not to present a dry chemistry lesson, but rather a kind of “Erin Brockovich.” in David Fincher style. This time, the center of his story is not a self-sacrificing environmental activist, but a no less passionate lawyer, who is such an important figure primarily because he knows the chemical lobby from the inside. As a business lawyer, Rob Bilott stood on DuPont’s side for many years and helped cover up mistakes and silence victims. However, on the recommendation of his grandmother, he meets a farmer (Bill Camp) whose almost 200 cattle died in agony. The reason: residues of perfluorooctanoic acid in drinking water, a waste product from the production of various chemical substances and concentrates. Although at first glance it may seem a little arbitrary that someone who worked for DuPont for years and was therefore himself a beneficiary of the chemical lobby should be upset by meeting a single person (who doesn’t even arouse much pity due to his harsh demeanor). If the other side lets the other side go, Bilott’s environment – for example the impending birth of his first child – gradually creates an overall picture of someone who has been gradually purified. What we see is a very typical initial spark that causes the protagonist to rethink.
Rob is aware that he actually has no chance against his overwhelming opponent.
But precisely because of his knowledge of the power of large corporations like DuPont, Rob Bilott is by no means a typical heroic figure. While Erin Brockovich expresses her enthusiasm and passion in a very extroverted manner and thus infects those around her, Bilott is more of a quiet rebel who knows about his Davidic position in this power struggle. Sometimes it seems almost morbidly funny how such an overpowering opponent deals with his supposedly small adversary – for example when Rob is handed hundreds of boxes of unsorted (!) files and documents from DuPont at the beginning of his research because the company is counting on that the lawyer then gives up – who has the time and leisure to fight through such a mountain of papers? The fact that Bilott doesn’t let this deter him, he sacrifices day and night for his clients, pulls out all the stops to get to the obviously guilty company and puts his marriage and health at risk is what ultimately makes him – also thanks to an outstandingly intense Mark Ruffalo (“Foxcatcher”) – nevertheless a heroic figure who never asks to be seen like one and simply fights tirelessly for justice. Bilott relies on facts and science – it’s all the more grueling because Dark Waters makes it unmistakably clear that, in the end, that’s not what it’s about. Even the information about Bilott’s successes in court, which is also displayed via a text panel – he won millions of dollars in compensation for several clients – evaporates when it becomes clear in the next moment that a company like DuPont has already recouped such a compensation payment in profit within one working day . In Dark Waters the bad guys win in the end.
“While Erin Brockovich carries her fire and passion to the outside world in a very extroverted manner and thus infects those around her, Bilott is more of a quiet rebel who knows about his Davidic position in this power struggle.”
And yet it is important to watch a film like this, which Todd Haynes directs in a way that is both matter-of-fact and intense. His regular cameraman Edward Lachman and composer Marcelo Zarvos (“Fences”) wrap Dark Waters in ominous images and sounds; the score wafts subversively threateningly, the decidedly calm camera gives a sad insight into the fate of the DuPont victims and the ruthlessness of the company (his face: “Alias” veteran Victor Garber in a damn unpleasant role). Anne Hathaway is an emotional anchor. The Oscar winner (2013 for “Les Misérables”) plays Rob Bilott’s wife watching her husband’s slow disintegration with complete devotion and gets from the script (Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, based on a New York Times article by Nathaniel Reich ) put some outstanding monologues into her mouth that remind you, even in the darkest minutes of this story, why you should never give up the field to the bad guys without a fight – and in doing so expresses what her husband is no longer physically capable of doing he has almost worked himself to death.
Conclusion: With his equally excellently acted and directed legal thriller Dark Waters director Todd Haynes has achieved nothing less than the most important film of the year.
Dark Waters can be seen in USA cinemas from October 8th.