Rob Bilott was never a guy who made much of an impression. He wasn’t flashy or very well dressed. He schlepped around in one of several older model cars that he liked to collect. In fact, he was something of a perfect choice for a corporate defense lawyer: a young family guy who blended into the pack, knew the minutia of law inside and out, and worked hard to keep everything on an even keel.
And being even-keeled, in the corporate world, is very, very good.
So when some farmer shows up at the Cincinatti offices of Taft, Stettinus & Hollister and demands to see him and only him, Rob is more than a little taken aback. And when that scruffy fellow, named Wilbur Tennant, shoves a dirty box full of VCR tapes into his hands and starts growling about needing a fancy environmental lawyer, Rob is taken aback even more.
Coincidentally, it turns out that the farmer is a neighbor of Rob’s grandmother from Parkersburg, West Virginia. And even though Rob generally has little as possible to do with suing anybody, he takes a drive out to West Virginia over the weekend—out of respect for his Gammers, if nothing else.
What Rob finds there is disturbing. In more ways than one. It seems that Tennant does indeed have a problem. His ranch is currently more of a graveyard than a farm. The man has lost 190 head of cattle over the last couple years. He shows Rob bloody physical evidence of the animal’s bloated organs, blackened teeth and grotesque tumors. He shows him videoes of carved-open dead corpses. Rob even watches a tumor-covered cow go quite mad right before his eyes.
All the evidence, from nearby landfills to chemical-laced streams, seems to point back to DuPont Chemicals, the town’s biggest employer. But again, Rob is a corporate lawyer. He defends these kinds of companies, he certainly doesn’t sue them for environmental damages.
Still, Rob supposes he can make a few inquiries. Wilbur Tennant said there had been an EPA inspection and a report that he was never allowed to see. DuPont would know about something like that. And Rob just happens to be a good friend of one of DuPont’s leading lawyers. So he asks for a copy of the report and his friend, Phil, sends it right over.
But … there’re discrepencies, obvious issues with the thick, typed-out report. And when Rob asks a few more questions, Phil and everyone else clam up, or tell him to forget about some dirty farmer’s ravings.
Rob can certainly see the wisdom in that. He’s just been made a partner in his firm. He has a growing family. And he definitely has responsibilities to Taft clients that actually pay something.
C’mon, this is crazy, Rob worries to himself. You don’t go suing a multi-billion dollar, highly respected company like DuPont do you?
Turns out, yes, you do. As really horrible evidence mounts, Rob can’t keep from taking things just a step further. And with every step, he sees more and more people being put in harm’s way or actually dying from the industrial chemicals in their water.
Eventually Rod can’t turn a blind eye to what he’s uncovered, and he gives his all to help Tennant and the whole 70,000-person population of Parkersburg. He does so in spite of the great risk to his profesional and personal life. Eventually the weight of battling toe to toe, over many years, with a company with limitless resources takes a physical toll on Rob. (He has a light stroke.)
Rob’s wife Sarah isn’t always in favor of Rob’s choice. She undersstands his the need to defend the helpless. But Sarah also sees the negative impact that Rob’s absence, dwindling income and stress levels have on their relationship and children. When Rob gets sick, though, she springs to his defence and stands strong by his side. Rob’s boss, Tom, also ends up supporting his legal battle even though it runs in opposition to what their firm actually does. “American business is better than this,” he declares to fellow partners of his law firm. “And when it’s not, you should hold them accountable!”
In spite of DuPont’s fierce defence and years of court cases (and the toll those years of struggle take on Rob, his family and his firm), word about the company’s purposely malicious choices are eventually revealed to the world, and many of the injured are given money and medical help.
Rob and Sarah send their boys to a Catholic school. We see the family (when their first son is just a baby) pray before dinner and bless the meal in “Christ’s name.” Sarah also encourages her husband by telling him that his sacrifice for the Tennants and the townsfolk of Parkersburg was the “Christian thing” to do.
Still, we never see Rob exhibit any of his wife’s faith. In fact, later in the film, the family is in a church service as the congregation sings a worship chorus. It’s apparent that Rob is stressed out at this point and completely detached from the praise and worship. The film contrasts the chorus’ lyrics, “Lord I know you’re here and always by my side,” with the obvious fact that Rob is walling himself off and not reaching out for God’s spiritual or emotional help in any way.
In a similarly themed contrast, we see Wilbur Tennant’s family (in a different scene) being ostracized by a group of church members while they all give voice to a hymn of unity.
Some teens jump over a fence into a restricted area to drink beer and skinnydip in a lake. We see a young woman and man beginning to take off their clothes. And then we watch from the water as they leap in. (We see the young man’s bare back and backside.)
During a corporate dinner, the camera catches a fairly quick glimpse of a painting hanging on the wall that features a woman’s naked backside.
One of Rob and Sarah’s three son’s suggests that the biblical Mary Magdalene was a “hooker.”
In an early scene, a sick cow, with lesions all over its body, goes mad and charges Rob and Mr, Tennant. The farmer is forced to shoot the animal several times before it collapses, dead, and the result is a bloody pooled mess.
That may be the only direct death-dealing that we witness, but the truth is, that the whole film feels like a pretty violent attack as we witness animals and people sicken and die from the chemicals in the town water stream. We see a picture of a baby with chemically caused birth defects. (We see him in a later picture as a young boy and then as an adult.) People have lesions on their bodies. Others are shown in sickly, cancerous states. There are a number of dogs and cows that sport external tumors. And the camera looks closely at goopy tumors and swollen internal organs that Tennant cut out of dead animals and kept preserved in his freezer.
Tennant reports that he lost 190 cows from the chemicals in the nearby stream. At first he buried the animals; then he began piling them up and burning them. His field is filled with burial mounds, and we see him burning a carcass.
Someone uses graphic term to threaten someone with castration. Someone’s house is set on fire by hired thugs.
Two f-words (one of which is screamed in front of a young boy) and a single s-word join multiple uses each of “a–,” “h—,” “b–ch” and “d–n.” The word “crap” is spit out a couple times. Jesus’ name is abused a half-dozen times, including one use of the exclamation, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” God’s name is combined with the word “d–n” twice.
People drink wine, beer and mixed drinks at a variety of parties, in a bar and in dinner settings. We see a number of people on Parkersburg street corners and at a local courthouse smoking cigarettes. We’re told that DuPont surreptitiously laced its employee’s cigarettes with an early Teflon concoction and that all of the people in the test were eventually hospitalized.
DuPont is depicted as a corporate entity run by people who value money far above anything else, including human life. In fact, when the company began experimenting with Teflon, a non-stick compound used on everything from pans to carpet, there were indicators that the chemical and its components might be harmful to people in a number of ways. And even when tests showed that supposition to be true, the company purposely kept its results secret because the various products were, by then, bringing in over a billion dollars annually.
We learn of experiments being conducted on DuPont employees without their knowledge, resulting in many cases of cancer and birth defects. Disposed-of chemicals found their way into the Parkersburg water supply, causing town-wide sickness and death. And when Rob Bilott begins revealing the truth, the company spends millions to continue the cover up legally. in several cases, DuPont personnel even physically destroy property to keep people quiet.
Dark Waters implores its viewers to trust a little less—to stop relying on the promises of government, big business and the like—and investigate a lot more. It’s a cautionary tale about some very real corporate malfeasance and insidious environmental destruction that took place over the course of decades.
The film artfully portrays lawyer Rob Bilott’s years of effort to help a badly wounded West Virginia town and to bring terrible, hidden atrocities to the world’s attention. “They want us to think that we’re protected,” Bilott cries out in the midst of his David vs. Goliath struggle against the uber-powerful DuPont company. “But we protect us. We do!”
At the same time, this film also makes it very plain that choosing rightly isn’t always a joyous experience. In fact, it honestly tells us that an upright choice can sometimes be painful and personally damaging (especially for those who choose to shoulder the whole burden themselves).
In that light, while this film is factual, well-made and eye-opening, it isn’t necessarily … enjoyable. Dark Waters’ foul language, foul tumor-filled visuals and foul big corporation beat-downs of lawyer Rob Bilott’s brave but often feeble slingshot-swinging often feel like depressing cinematic drudgery.
For the right mature viewer who seeks enlightenment over entertainment, however, the movie delivers.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke once wrote. That shout-out for righteous action is as true today as it was 200 years ago. And it’s also very much at the heart of this grimly earnest film.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.