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Film / Dark Waters

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"The system is rigged! They want us to think itíll protect us, but thatís a lie. We protect us. We do. Nobody else. Not the companies, not the scientists, not the government. Us. A farmer with a twelfth grade education told me that. On day one, he knew, and I thought he was crazy. Isnít that crazy?"
Robert Biloit

Dark Waters is an American biopic / legal thriller released in 2019. Based on the 2014 New York Times article The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare, it dramatizes the true story of the DuPont Teflon scandal and its related legal battles.

The film follows Robert Biloit (Mark Ruffalo), a lawyer at a Cincinnati firm that primarily serves corporate clients. Following a big promotion, he gets a visit from Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a friend of his grandmother in West Virginia. A humble if irritable rancher, Tennant's cattle and other animals have been dying of strange diseases and birth defects ever since the DuPont Chemical corporation bought some nearby land, leading him to believe the company has been illegally dumping toxic waste in the local groundwater.

While Robert is initially reluctant to take the case, as his firm specializes in defending chemical corporations, a talk with his grandmother and a visit to Tennant's ranch changes his mind, and he begins digging into DuPont's dealings in the area. But as the company does its best to dissuade him and hinder his efforts, Robert soon realizes that this illegal dumping issue is just the tip of the iceberg in a decades-long conspiracy to hide the harmful effects of DuPont's chemicals...

The film also features Anne Hathaway as Robertís wife Sarah, Victor Garber as opposing lawyer Phil Donnelly, Tim Robbins as Robertís boss, Tom Terp and Bill Pullman as Harry Deitzler, a trial lawyer for Robertís firm. Itís directed by auteur Todd Haynes, and is the first film of his that he did not write.

Dark Waters provides examples of:

  • Adorably Precocious Child: Robert and Sarahís eldest son Teddy behaves this way early on, although heís grown into a joking teenager by the last act.
  • Ambulance Chaser: One of Robertís colleagues accuses him of engaging in a Frivolous Lawsuit by suing DuPont but is quickly shot down.
  • Amoral Attorney: DuPont lawyers Edward Wallace and Phil Donnelly. Edgar smugly argues DuPontís case in court and Phil obstructs Robertís efforts to first investigate the case.
  • Angry White Man: Tennant is a non-racist example as his livelihood is destroyed, heís constantly ignored, and additional misfortunes pile upon him.
  • As Himself: Bucky Bailey, one of the many children born with physical deformities due to the abysmal safety standards at DuPont's teflon factories, cameos as himself, running into Robert at a gas station.
  • Benevolent Boss: Kim Burke, Robís direct superior at the firm, never obstructs him, listens to what he has to say, and gets along well with him even before Tom has gotten onboard with the case. Terp also gradually turns into one of the tough but fair kind.
  • Blatant Lies: DuPont lies constantly in order to portray teflon and its fabrication as safe, and push for its use, despite being long, fully aware of its damaging effects.
  • Book Dumb: Itís lampshaded that for a chemical company lawyer, Robert doesnít have too good a knowledge of chemistry. Still, heís a very good courtroom advocate who understands the effects of those chemicals mean when they're explained to him.
  • Car Bomb: Robert becomes frightened that his car has been outfitted with one at one point, but is just being paranoid.
  • Cassandra Truth: Tennant has spent a long time trying to get accountability for the wrongs done to him while no one will admit a problem even exists. Heís pretty bitter about it.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Joe and Darleen Kriger are initially just people who give the Tennants dirty looks in church, but as the story gets more notice, they take attention to it and call Robert and his fellow lawyers, while volunteering a lot of names and medical conditions of affected people in the area.
  • Company Town: Parkersburg, West Virginia is a town where DuPont employs most people and are mentioned as having showered favors on people who played ball with them
  • Composite Character: Phil Donnelly is a composite of multiple DuPont lawyers from real-life.
  • Conversation Cut: One long scene shows Robert explaining his research and its health implications first to his wife, then to Tom, then Phil Donnelly, then Tennant.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: It goes without saying that any DuPont executive involved in the plot, whether onscreen or not, comes across as greedy and heartless.
  • Crazy-Prepared: Tennant has lots of organs and body parts from diseased cows, videos of autopsies, and more evidence of pollution prepared before going to a lawyer. Later, he ends up hiding his tapes under floorboards due to correctly fearing a robbery.
  • Crusading Lawyer: Robert (and eventually Tom and Kim) spend twenty years trying to prove accountability in the case, and eventually to hit the polluters as hard as possible in the lawsuits.
  • Doomed Moral Victor: the heavily victimized Tenant dies of Teflon-related cancer while the case is still in trial.
  • Facial Horror: A woman who cleaned the DuPont vats gave birth to Bucky Bailey, a baby with one nostril and a deformed eye.
  • Family Versus Career: Robís wife is a former workers comp lawyer who is now a stay at home mom.
  • False Reassurance: Phil is very open to Robertís inquiries at first, letting him go through the files to show he has nothing to hide. But this is only because the files donít have any of the incriminating stuff that is out there somewhere else. Later, he assures Robert that his discovery papers are coming over, only to bury him in documents.
  • Good Is Not Dumb: When Harry voices concerns that the people they want to get tested for health effects might take the money to get tested and run, Robert makes it clear that they wonít pay anyone until after they've been tested.
  • Graceful Ladies Like Purple: One of Tennantís daughters wears a purple jacket in at least one scene.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: The Tennant family get treated like dirt in town for years for suing the towns biggest employer, despite their claimís merit. Then the Kriegers and many others get blamed due to the long delays that follow the blood testing before they can go to trial.
  • Implausible Deniability: The DuPont executives continuously deny any wrongdoing in the face of evidence, or that various studies took place even when Robert and his team have copies already.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Tennant, once he gets sick from the water.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: The epilogue reveals that DuPont eventually stops trying to fight after Robert wins three cases and they end up having to pay over $600 million in settlement money.
  • Loophole Abuse: DuPont is free to decide what concentration of teflon in the water is safe to drink. So when they get over their own set safety standards... they just change the standards and continue as normal.
  • Military Brat: Robert's dad was in the army, he moved their family around ten times when he was a kid.
  • Moving the Goalposts: DuPont first drags their feet in court, then agrees to pay a large settlement to their victims if an independent science panel can prove the negative effects of their products. They then throw all the mud and obstacles they can to delay that study, and when it finally is released, flat out renege and ignore the agreement they made, forcing Robert to take them to court yet again.
  • Murder by Mistake: While not actually murder, the house of one local resident is burned down by mistake because he has the same last same as a plaintiff in Robertís case.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Sarah and Tom are disturbed after Robert suffers a stroke-like attack due to the stress from the case, which they have been compounding to, and become more determined not to make him feel like a failure as a result.
  • My Secret Pregnancy: A minor point, but one of the female lawyers at the firm delays announcing her pregnancy so people wonít be concerned it will affect her work.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Robert still hangs out with the associates at the firm after making partner.
  • Not Himself: The moment Rob starts to believe Tennant is when he sees Tennant's last cow and dog spinning over themselves and attacking without provocation. Also counts as a subversion of the Evil-Detecting Dog, as neither is aware of drinking poisoned water despite succumbing to the effects before people do.
  • Oh, Crap!: The revelation that DuPont has been using dangerous amounts of boderline-lethal chemicals in its millions of household products sends Robert into a panic, as he and his family have been using said products for years. At the height of this panic, his wife comes home to find him throwing out nearly every chemical product in the house and tearing up their carpet, since it had likely been treated with DuPont products at some point.
  • Police Are Useless: The EPA (a relatively young agency at the time the beginning of the film) is portrayed as overwhelmed and behind the curve in classifying chemicals, getting their supposedly complete list of which chemicals should be regulated from the companies themselves.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Phil Donnelly has a few moments where he might look disgusted or disturbed with his clients, but still defends them despite of the harm theyíre causing.
  • Rage-Breaking Point: Robert loses it after his meeting with the Krigerís and seeing apparent evidence of additional cover-ups.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Tom Terp ultimately turns into one. He carefully listening to evidence for most of the story, while holding his cards close to his chest, but then shuts down an attempt by some of the other partners to keep Robert from taking the case, pressing for it to go to trial.
  • Red Herring: About halfway through the film, Robert starts experiencing trembling in his hands and later in his legs, and later collapses during a heated meeting with Tom, which might cause viewers — at least the ones not aware that the real Robert Billott was still alive and perfectly healthy at the time of the film's release — to assume that he himself has been affected by the chemicals and possibly developed some kind of neurological disorder. It turns out that there's nothing physically wrong with him, and that it's purely the result of stress.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: The company does a lot of this, especially in the second half of the movie.
  • Sheep in Sheep's Clothing: The independent committee assigned to test the various blood samples of the townspeople drag their feet on it for seven years. This delay implies that the committee is corrupt and involved in a cover-up, but finally they do come through, confirming the harm caused by the chemicals and praising Robert for bringing it to their attention, while being apologetic for how long they took due to the sheer quantity of samples.
  • Simple Country Lawyer: Larry Winter, the local counsel attached to Robís firm, is folksy but shrewd.
  • Skinny Dipping: The first scene of the film shows some kids doing this in a river being polluted by DuPont.
  • Stop Being Stereotypical: Tom Terp, an experienced corporate defense lawyer, is disgusted by the Corrupt Corporate Executive misdeeds of DuPont, noting how it's people like them who make the public distrust all big corporations and their lawyers.
  • Time Skip: Several of them, as the film follows over a decade.
  • Unwitting Test Subject: The company tested the chemical they thought was dangerous on workers by lacing it on cigarettes, but continues producing it and dumping it in the land even after those oblivious test subjects get sick.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Terp surprisingly turns out to be one, believing in a sense of corporate accountability and wanting to see DuPont held accountable for their crimes just as much as Robert.
  • You Have to Believe Me!: Sarah finds Robertís initial reactions to discovering the impact of some of the chemicals crazy until he sits down and explains it in greater detail.