Dark Waters (2019) Analysis – The System is Rigged.


Mark Ruffalo, the actor who has been an activist advocating for Environmental Protection and Preservation, finally produces a film that centers around the same. Dark Waters portrays Robert Billott, a lone crusader who invests his life, fighting against the corrupt and rigged system.  

The Story

Dark Waters begins with Mark Ruffalo as attorney Robert Billott who works for a law firm, Taft Stettinius & Hollister, which mostly represents major corporations, including Dupont, one of the world’s most powerful chemical manufacturers. Billott’s grandmother advises cattle farmer, Willbur Tennat to meet Billott, as he can help him file a case against a Chemical Corp. that polluted the water body near the farm, leading to the death of 190 cows. 

“His farm is a Graveyard” 

Billott, first skeptical, tries to investigate the case superficially, but what follows is a detective story with a nice lawyer at its center, unveiling a history of pollution and environmental degradation that can never be cured.

Mark Ruffalo as Robert Billott

Billott sets out on a journey to investigate the DuPont Corporation waste disposal constituents, which they claimed were non-hazardous but was it?

Mark Ruffalo, plays the character with the same vulnerability and charm, as it is reflected in his off-reel works. He looks sincere throughout and the motifs of the films seem so real, that it feels like his personal agenda to disclose the malpractices of the Chemical Giants. Even when Billott, tries to deny the case saying,

“I am an attorney, not an environmentalist.”

His words are shaky which means that inside the core of the character, he does care for the environment, and this is the sole trigger that leads to his discoveries.

Through Billott, Ruffalo has shown such an infiltrating character graph, that it almost keeps you on the verge of your own emotions. You want this man to win because you know he is fighting for humanity. It starts with a small lawyer who can’t even thrive in front of DuPont, a corporation which has almost bought the whole town, hiding their actions, behind social slogans, advertisements and campaigns. In the beginning, it looks like a fight between a lowly farmer and the Giants, but when Billott steps in, the man changes everything, not because he is powerful, but because he cares.

This change in his character, from a skeptical lawyer working for a corporation to a lawyer who wants to save humanity, can be traced in a single scene when the farmer accuses Billott of still being one of them. Billott who feels both sorry for his actions and other, finally takes up this fight, as his own, and that’s where moviegoers might try a bit of “hooting.” 

The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare

Billott reveals that DuPont’s waste consists of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a byproduct of one of DuPont’s most lucrative postwar products, Teflon.  This also termed as C-8, is the cause of various cancers in the human body and even leads to deformation in unborn babies.

The revelation is both chilly and haunting, because once this chemical enters the human body, it stays there, forever.

Teflon coating, today, is found in almost everything that is waterproof or non-stick, that includes your kitchen pan too. Per the research, 99% of humans have traces of C-8, thanks to Teflon and the contribution of DuPont.

The journey and pursuit of Billott look necessary throughout and even makes you cry when it is about to break down. Billott has been supported tremendously by his boss, who is a very appealing Board-Meeting Scene, speaks,

“American Business should not run on blood, that is not how you build faith in the system. If the companies have crossed the line, we’ll push them back.”

Billott when finally shows the head of DuPont the pictures of deformed baby, it’s a scene which is necessary for all humanity to witness. How our actions to earn bucks, is leading to sufferings and death and yes, we are all responsible.

Spoiler Ahead – Don’t Cross (if you haven’t seen the film)

Why “Dark Waters” is a Necessary Cinema?

I’m glad Mark Ruffalo produced Dark Waters, gladder because he acted in it. It gave me a bit of a feeling of one of my most favorite films of the ‘70s, Chinatown. Jack Nicholson as Jake investigates a case which finally leads to disappointment, with the famous line peeping up, 

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown”

Jake is told that you can’t change things and they will play out their way, no matter how hard you try. But for Billott, the fight is not going to end that simple, not until he has achieved justice for more than 69 thousand people, living in West Virginia who consumed water, having traces of C-8. There are much more lives at stake here than in Chinatown.

Initially, Billott trusted the system, the judiciary, (like Jake in Chinatown) because he is a lawyer, but the system fails him too. Even after fighting the case for 11 years, the government and the system supported DuPont, so what was the point of the whole fight?

Billott tells his wife that,

“They want to show the world it’s no use fighting. “Look, everybody, even he can’t crack the maze, and he’s helped build it.” The system is rigged! They want us to think it’ll protect us, but that’s 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. Isn’t that crazy?”

One soon realise, as the film proceeds, about how bad things are, thanks to corporate influence over the government as well as the economy, but the extent of the corruption is still shocking.

Billott who has been completely devastated by the news of the government supporting the Corp. still manages to fight for the people, who have shown trust upon his actions. After 20 years, the lawyer still continues his fight to put a ban on Teflon and other 600 chemicals that aren’t regulated.

It’s a necessary film, not for Cinema but for humanity. Ruffalo has given us a belief that if you know art, and there are people who respond to your art, then it’s your moral responsibility to dedicate a part of it, to the greater good and welfare of all human beings, or else, we all will perish.

“You did a good thing, Mr. Ruffalo. You did Good.”

Dark Waters (2019) directed by Todd Haynes is based on the 2016 New York Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich. The film is an understated example of a dying breed of film, resonating with present-day feelings of hopelessness at the brazen corruption on display every day throughout the world.

Dark Waters is streaming on SonyLiv.

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Shikhar Agrawal
Shikhar Agrawal
I am an Onstage Dramatist and a Screenwriter. I have been working in the Indian Film Industry for the past 12 years, writing dialogues for various films and television shows.

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