“Dark Waters” thrills in its nationwide release Dec. 6, with an undeniably excellent true story — and its impact reaches far beyond theaters. Mark Ruffalo shines as Rob Bilott, a corporate defense lawyer for chemical companies, who flips the script to defend his West Virginia hometown Parkersburg from the DuPont company and the deadly chemical C8.
Ruffalo nails the role of Bilott and is surrounded by an incredible supporting cast whose performances kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time. Anne Hathaway plays Bilott’s wife, Sarah, and Tim Robbins portrays Bilott’s boss, Tom Terp. Both actors excel in their roles by bringing extreme emotion and intensity to the film.
But, it’s Bill Camp as Wilbur Tennant who gives the best performance of all. Tennant is the farmer who first brings the case to Bilott’s attention, and without him, DuPont likely would have continued to knowingly poison the American public for years to come. Camp crushes the role, and Tennant is easily the film’s most important character: he pushes Bilott to act on this case and keeps him going when he is ready to settle.
The movie is based on a New York Times magazine article from 2016, “The Lawyer Who Became Dupont’s Worst Nightmare”, which details how Bilott began a nearly 20-year journey in 1998, fighting against DuPont for releasing a chemical called C8, also known as Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA), into the water and air of the small West Virginia town. An independent science panel found probable links between PFOA and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, preeclampsia and high blood pressure.
Scenes set in wintertime highlight the feeling of death and foreboding throughout the movie. When Tennant shows Bilott a graveyard full of his cattle early in the film, a dark tone is set that is continued throughout the piece. PFOA in their water killed nearly every single one of Tennant’s cattle, and when the viewer sees the horror of a cow gone mad for the first time, and the gruesome scene as Tennant is forced to kill it, it is clear that this situation is no joke.
The perfect example of the dangers of PFOA is William “Bucky” Bailey III, whose mother worked in DuPont’s factory. Bailey was born with multiple birth defects including a single nostril due to PFOA poisoning. He testified before Congress in July of this year about the need for corporate accountability with regard to PFOA and other Perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). He, along with the real Rob and Sarah Bilott have brief cameos in the film. This evanescent moment of Bailey’s face that the viewer has to take is all that is needed to get his message across. PFOA is just one of many PFAS or “forever chemicals” that the EPA warns about.
The worst part? PFOA never leaves your body. It’s probably in your blood right now. If you’re an American and you’re reading this, there’s a 98% or higher chance that it’s in your body according to a study published by Environmental Health Perspectives. While the CDC estimates that most people don’t have harmful levels of the chemical in their system, it still builds up over time and remains in your body forever. People who aren’t careful about what products they use, for instance, any old pans or pots made with Teflon, place themselves at risk of serious disease or death.
The film unfurls the horror of what took place in Parkersburg slowly, building one block on top of the next in small steps. The film moves at a slow pace, but it doesn’t drag. Instead, it feels methodical, intentional — mirroring a prosecutor building up evidence in a case. By the time you step back and take a look at it, a mountain of atrocities piles up before the viewer. The film forces you to take in the full scope and horror of what DuPont did.
The chemical that gave Tennant cancer, and gave Bailey birth defects is still impacting Americans today. This is the message this film hammers home so effectively through its brilliant use of character and tension. The film calls for all these chemicals to be banned worldwide, and implores its viewers to do the same.