Dark Waters (2019 film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Todd Haynes|
|Based on||"The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare"|
by Nathaniel Rich
|Music by||Marcelo Zarvos|
|Edited by||Affonso Gonçalves|
|Distributed by||Focus Features|
|Box office||$21 million|
Dark Waters is a 2019 American legal thriller film directed by Todd Haynes and written by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan. The story dramatizes Robert Bilott's case against the chemical manufacturing corporation DuPont after they contaminated a town with unregulated chemicals. It stars Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, and Bill Pullman.
The film is based on the 2016 New York Times Magazine article "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare" by Nathaniel Rich. Parts of the story were also reported by Mariah Blake, whose 2015 article "Welcome to Beautiful Parkersburg, West Virginia" was a National Magazine Award finalist, and Sharon Lerner, whose series "Bad Chemistry" ran in The Intercept. Bilott also wrote a memoir, Exposure, detailing his 20-year legal battle against DuPont.
Dark Waters had a limited theatrical release on November 22, 2019, by Focus Features, and went wide on December 6, 2019. The film received positive reviews from critics and has grossed $21 million.
Robert Bilott is a corporate defense lawyer from Cincinnati, Ohio working for law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister. Farmer Wilbur Tennant, who knows Robert's grandmother, asks Robert to investigate a number of unexplained deaths in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Tennant connects the deaths to the chemical manufacturing corporation DuPont, and gives Robert a large case of videotapes.
Robert visits the Tennants' farm, where he learns that 190 cattle have died with unusual medical conditions such as bloated organs, blackened teeth, and tumors. DuPont attorney Phil Donnelly tells him he is not aware of the case but will help out in any way he can. Robert files a small suit so he can gain information through legal discovery of the chemicals dumped on the site. When he finds nothing useful in the EPA report, he realizes the chemicals might not be regulated by the EPA.
Robert confronts Phil at an industry event, leading to an angry exchange. DuPont sends Robert hundreds of boxes, hoping to bury the evidence. Robert finds numerous references to PFOA, a chemical with no references in any medical textbook. In the middle of the night, Robert's pregnant wife Sarah finds him tearing the carpet off the floors and going through their pans. He has discovered that PFOA is perfluorooctanoic acid, used to manufacture Teflon and used in American homes for nonstick pans. DuPont has been running tests of the effect of PFOA for decades, finding that it causes cancer and birth defects, but did not make the findings public. They dumped hundreds of gallons of toxic sludge upriver from Tennant's farm. PFOA and similar compounds are forever chemicals, chemicals that do not leave the blood stream and slowly accumulate.
Tennant has been shunned by the community for suing their biggest employer, and he and his wife both have cancer. Robert encourages him to accept DuPont's settlement, but Tennant refuses, wanting justice. He tells Robert he and his wife both have cancer. Robert sends the DuPont evidence to the EPA and Department of Justice, among others. The EPA fines DuPont $16.5 million.
Robert, however, is not satisfied; he realizes that the residents of Parkersburg will suffer the effects of the PFOA for the rest of their lives. He seeks medical monitoring for all residents of Parkersburg in one large class-action lawsuit. However, DuPont sends a letter notifying residents of the presence of PFOA, thus starting the statute of limitations and giving any further action only a month to begin.
Since PFOA is not regulated, Robert's team argues that the corporation is liable, as the amount in the water was higher than the one part per billion deemed safe by DuPont's internal documents. In court, DuPont claims their later study found that 150 parts per billion is safe. The locals protest and the story becomes national news. DuPont agrees to settle for $70 million. As DuPont is only required to carry out medical monitoring if scientists prove that PFOA causes the ailments, an independent scientific review is set up. To get data for it, DuPont tells the locals they can get their settlement money after donating blood. Nearly 70,000 people donate to the study.
Seven years pass with no result from the study. Tennant dies and Robert becomes destitute following several pay cuts, straining his marriage. When Tom tells him he needs to take another pay cut, Robert collapses, shaking. Doctors tell Sarah he suffered an ischemia, brought on by stress. Sarah tells Tom to stop making Robert feel like a failure, since he is doing something for people who need help.
The scientific review contacts Robert and tells him that PFOA causes multiple cancers and other diseases. At dinner with his family, Robert is informed that DuPont is reneging on the entire agreement. Robert decides to take each defendant's case to DuPont, one at a time. He wins the first three multimillion-dollar settlements against DuPont, and DuPont settles the class action for $671 million.
On September 21, 2018, it was announced that Todd Haynes would direct the film, then titled Dry Run, from a script by Matthew Michael Carnahan, which would be produced by Participant Media along with Mark Ruffalo. In November 2018, Ruffalo was officially set to star in the film.
In January 2019, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, and Bill Pullman joined the cast of the film, with Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffler producing under their Killer Films banner. Principal photography began on January 14, 2019, in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The film was released in limited theatres on November 22, 2019, before going wide on December 6, 2019.
Dark Waters grossed $11.1 million in the United States and Canada, and $9.9 million in other countries, for a worldwide total of $21 million.
In its opening weekend the film made $102,656 from four theaters, a per-venue average of $25,651. It expanded to 94 theaters the following weekend, making $630,000. The film went wide in its third weekend of release, making $4.1 million from 2,012 theaters, and then made $1.9 million in its fourth weekend.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 90% based on 197 reviews, with an average rating of 7.3/10. The website's critics consensus reads: "Dark Waters powerfully relays a real-life tale of infuriating malfeasance, honoring the victims and laying blame squarely at the feet of the perpetrators." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 72 out of 100, based on 36 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A–" on an A+ to F scale, while those at PostTrak gave it an average 3.5 out of 5 stars, with 60% saying they would definitely recommend it to a friend.
The DowDuPont breakup earlier in the year spun off a new DuPont company that continued to lose value throughout the second half of 2019 as investors grew concerned about the potential liabilities related to the old DuPont's fluoropolymer products. When Dark Waters was released on November 12, DuPont's stock price dropped even further by 7.15 points from 72.18 to 65.03. While the portfolio is now a part of Chemours and the companies settled the public health lawsuits referenced in the film, Chemours sued DuPont, alleging that the former parent company saddled it with onerous liabilities when it failed to prepare financial projections in good faith. Chemours estimated that it would need to pay over $200 million to address environmental damages in North Carolina caused by another PFAS manufacturing facility in that region. (The prior settlement in both West Virginia and Ohio cost $671 million, which was split between the two companies.)
DuPont CEO Marc Doyle, executives, and investors argued in internal statements that much of the movie was not based in fact and DuPont was misconstrued to fit the role of the enemy. According to Doyle, limited public statements were made because “in a situation like this, it just doesn’t do you much good to fight it out in the public eye. That would just drive more and more attention to it.” Executive chairman Ed Breen wouldn’t comment on whether DuPont would take legal action in response to the movie, but he did tell investors, “Obviously, we have a lot of legal folks [that] have been looking at this." Many of the executives with whom this movie draws fault still work, or recently worked at DuPont. 3M saw little to no change in its stock price the day of the film's release, but it was already experiencing a "difficult year" from "potential liabilities due to possible litigation over previous production of PFAS." 3M's stock price closed at 256.01 on January 28, 2018, and by December 1, 2019, it had fallen to 168.27.
|Award||Date of ceremony||Category||Recipient(s)||Result||Ref(s)|
|Satellite Awards||December 19, 2019||Best Actor, Drama||Mark Ruffalo||Nominated|||
|Best Adapted Screenplay||Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan, Nathaniel Rich||Nominated|
|Cinema for Peace||19th Cinema for Peace's Gala|February 23, 2020||Award for Justice 2020||Dark Waters||Nominated|||
|International Green Film Award 2020||Dark Waters||Nominated|
- Perfluorinated alkylated substances (PFAS)
- Timeline of events related to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)
- The Devil We Know (2018 investigative documentary)
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