I read a tweet recently that made a provocative suggestion: instead of talking about the world ending, we should act as if the world has already ended, and start rebuilding things from there. In some ways, that’s also the message of Todd Haynes’ latest film, an adaptation of three articles about Robert Bilott, the lawyer who has been working since 1998 to hold the DuPont corporation responsible for their use of toxic chemicals, and their dumping of toxic chemicals into the water around Parkersburg, West Virginia. The film opens in 1976, with a group of teenagers swimming in contaminated water, before shifting to 1998, where we meet Bilott, played by Mark Ruffalo, who works for the law firm Taft Stettinius and Hollister, out of Cincinatti, Ohio. Taft is well known as a defender of chemical companies, and has a particularly strong professional relationship with DuPont, so it’s a surprise to everyone when Bilott decides to pursue a case against DuPont, after his grandmother asks him to take on a client in his home town of Parkersburg, whose property and health has been severely jeopardized by runoff from the local DuPont plant. Over time, this evolves into a class action that encompasses the entire town, as Bilott realises that DuPont have failed to self-regulate, or to disclose their findings about toxic chemicals used in their plants.
During the first part of Dark Waters, Haynes tells two distinct stories – the story told by the screenplay, which focuses on Bilott’s investigation into DuPont, and the story told by the lighting and cinematography, helmed here by Edward Lachman, who opts for cool tones, beautiful compositions, massive aerial shots and green-blue filters. Over the latter stage of his career, Haynes has increasingly turned towards bourgeois crisis as his preferred subject matter, along with violations of bourgeois space that speak to the need of a queerer and more collective way of expressing community than the conventions of the nuclear family. While his collaborations with Lachman have all involved very different subject matter, they’ve tended to exhibit the same lighting scheme: warm spaces cushioned by cool spaces. As in Douglas Sirk’s melodramas, which Haynes revisited and revised with Far From Heaven, these thresholds between warm light and cool light correspond to the thresholds between suburban interiors and the broader world outside. Like Sirk, however, Haynes also tends to internalise this logic within suburban space itself, meaning that there are often multiple thresholds between cool and warm light within a single suburban room or environment. In doing so, he envisages suburban spatiality as involuting and collapsing in upon itself, so obsessed with thresholds onto the outside world that it continually invokes the outside world in its own “interior” spaces through an infinite fractallation of warm-cool thresholds.
This spatial logic is particularly pronounced in the opening scenes of Dark Waters, which occupy these thresholds between warm and cool light more emphatically than any of Haynes’ films since Far From Heaven. In its own way, Dark Waters is also a suburban melodrama, at least in terms of its lighting schemes, since most of the key scenes are set at the bourgeois cusp between home and work, or home and outside, while Haynes and Lachman work especially hard to ensure that even the most sequestered of interior spaces are themselves composed of smaller warm-cool thresholds, rather than shutting the coolness out entirely. In the process, Dark Waters confounds the distinction between warm and cool light, producing a luminous gloom in which the dimness often seems more pronounced when it is passing through a brighter medium, like light moving through water. At times, it’s hard to tell whether the action is unfolding at dawn, dusk, or some murky conflation of the two – especially when Bilott becomes immersed in the case, and finds days, weeks and then years taken away from his life, which loses any sense of realistic time.
This convergence of light and gloom also seeps into the pacing of the film, which is similarly murky and distended – very delayed at times, and quite abbreviated at others. While Dark Waters might start out in the vein of a 1990s legal thriller, this unusual lighting and pacing gradually set it apart, as the scope and scale of the case gradually expands through several increasingly overwhelming phases of discovery. For those like me who didn’t know the events in detail, this initially seemed like it might be the story of a landmark case, and a triumph for chemical regulation, but instead the case stretches on and on, eventually taking us from 1998 until the present day – or from 1976 until the present day, if you count the opening scene as part of the broader sweep of the case. So great is the scale of the case that the sense of escalation and progress is often very diffuse, forcing Haynes away from the gung-ho heroism and individualism of other class action films – especially Erin Brockovich, which was released around the time that Bilott’s pursuit of DuPont was just starting to accelerate, but which couldn’t be more different in tone, mood or optimism. Here, there’s a much more muted sense of the capacity of individual lawyers to challenge corporations, especially since Haynes devotes more and more time to waiting – waiting as Bilott sifts through files, as Bilott waits to hear back from DuPont’s attorneys and, finally, as Bilott and the citizens of Parkersburg wait seven whole years to hear back on critical medical findings.
The story of corporate corruption told by the screenplay, and the story of bourgeois crisis told by the cinematography, come together with the great revelation of the case – that the water in Parkersburg is being poisoned by TFOA, a chemical used to create Teflon, which is used to repel water. We find out that DuPont realised that Teflon was toxic, but continued to use it in their products, while also dumping it illegally in the waters outside their plant in Parkersburg. Worse, DuPont used some of their workers as test subjects, organising their shifts to see how long they could withstand exposure to the chemical, resulting in many workers dying of the “Teflon flu,” and others giving birth to “Teflon babies” with facial deformities. Even those members of the town who aren’t working at the factory are affected, since the dumping of TFOA ensures that there is TFOA in the local water supply, meaning that virtually every member of Parkersburg has a high chance of developing cancer in years to come. Since one of the main features of “Teflon babies” are their uniform blue-green eyes, Haynes’ palette reflects the perspective of the inhabitants of the town, and the crushing gloom that descends when they recognise the total extent of DuPont’s corruption.
However, there’s an even more dramatic connection between the corporate crisis of Parkersburg and the bourgeois crisis of Haynes’ visual scheme. Since Teflon is used to coat every domestic item imaginable, the toxicity of the Parkersburg water supply also signals a broader toxicity at the heart of bourgeois space, both in America and abroad. In probably the pivotal moment of the film, Bilott realises this connection while looking at a 1950s-styled advertisement for a saucepan, prompting a bourgeois crisis that turns his own family, and his wife Sarah, played by Anne Hathaway, into an inextricable part of the lawsuit. Before this point, Haynes has drawn a distinction between Bilott’s home life and his work life. While there may be a crisis in his marriage, it remains separate, narratively speaking, from the crises he is investigating at work. After this revelation, however, DuPont’s activities, and the breakdown of Bilott’s marriage, converge on a greater crisis in bourgeois space – the very crisis that Hayne and Bachman’s lighting scheme has anticipated. Just as this cinematography suggests that bourgeois interiority and insularity have been irreversibly violated, so Teflon – the insulating medium par excellence – has in fact brought toxins into the domestic sphere, rather than protecting this suburban sanctuary from external toxicity.
In other words, Teflon is now framed as the disruptive element that has forced Haynes’ suburban spaces to internalise and replicate the very thresholds between warm interiority and cool exteriority that they are attempting to enact. To make matters worse, Teflon is used most extensively for food preparation items, but is also most potent when is is heated, effectively poisoning people under the guise of protecting their kitchen utensils from contamination. Early on we discover that TFOA bioaccumulates in the human body, which is incapable of breaking it down or excreting it. However, as Bilott, and the audience, discover the sheer number of suburban items that feature Teflon, Haynes also suggests that a kind of bourgeois bioaccumulation has taken place too. Like the human body, the suburban sphere has been irreducibly contaminated by TFOA, and by Teflon, and is incapable of expelling it, meaning that some alternative configuration to bourgeois values is required to combat it.
This makes the connection between Parkersburg and Cincannati, and between Bilott’s childhood in West Virginia and prestigious career as a trial lawyer in Ohio, more porous as the film proceeds. At first, you couldn’t imagine somewhere more remote from Bilott’s high-flying legal world than Tennant’s farm – poor, downbeat, occupied by working folk, in a remote part of a town that is already struggling. Yet we gradually learn that this initial crime scene has colonised every part of the domestic sphere, and that Bilott and his family have been poisoned long before he even took the case. The great revelation of Dark Waters, then, is that DuPont has already infiltrated the world, and has already partly destroyed the world, and that Bilott was complicit in this process from the start. In Parkersburg, this connection is even starker, since most of the citizens who could afford fancy homes were only able to do so, we learn, by remaining quiet about the Teflon plague.
Instead of a man trying to save a world, Haynes thus presents us with a man who discovers that this world has already been partly destroyed, which is perhaps why Dark Waters feels like an allegory of climate catastrophe as it moves inexorably towards the present. That’s not to say that the film is pessimistic, or nihilistic, but that it has to play down the grandstanding so precious to 90s legal thrillers in favour of a new kind of patience, courage and endurance. In part, that’s because Wilbur, and then Bilott’s other clients, aren’t especially convincing by these heroics, shooting down Bilott whenever he reverts to the one-liners common in 90s and early 00s legal thrillers – thrillers that helped to determine the way lawyers fashioned their self-image at the time Bilott was working. At one point, Bilott confides to Wilbur that he can be trusted because “I was one of them,” referring to the previous part of his career, when he defended DuPont. However, instead of being impressed at this potential Hollywood moment, Wilbur points out that “You’re still one of them” – and will remain one of them until Bilott looks beyond the immediate gain of a class action windfall and devotes his life to the cause, which is what he eventually ends up doing.
In other words, Dark Waters is a legal thriller made for an era of irreversible climate catastrophe, enjoining patience and hard work to repair and recover what remains. Most cinematic lawyers are descended in some way from Atticus Finch’s model of noble futility – “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us to try not to win – but that kind of sentimentality rings hollow in Haynes’ film. Rather than hang up his hat at the first sign of systemic injustice, as occurs with Atticus, Bilott can only hope to represent his clients by taking them through numerous institutional hurdles, culminating with the greatest demand for patience and endurance – the seven year wait as their medical results are processed, in what turns out to be “the largest epidemiological study in history.” During this period, many of Bilott’s clients die, lose their families, or pass the point of no return without adequate medical treatment. Even then, when the results finally do come back, and unequivocally point the blame at DuPont, the company contests them, forcing Bilott and all his clients to return to the courtroom to fight for ongoing medical monitoring.
This moment of crisis is prefigured in two very different ways by the film’s lighting scheme. On the one hand, Haynes starts to restore the bourgeois distinction between inside and outside as the news of the medical reports draws near. Exteriors grow darker, interiors grow brighter, and the distinction between warm and cool light grows sharper, resulting in the brightest scene in the entire film, which also happens to be the most coherent bourgeois tableau – the Bilott family Christmas party, adorned with a sparkling tree, multicoloured lights and a roaring fire. At the same time, however, Haynes also deconstructs this lighting palette ever more dramatically, culminating with a single shot, just before Bilott takes the call from the medical company, that recapitulates the cinematography of the film in miniature. We start with a frame of Bilott’s office in which the warmth of his furniture and fixtures is pointedly contrasted with the gloom and murk of the Cincinnatti dusk outside. Yet as the camera pans to the right, and to a second window, the darkness of the cityscape converges with a dark patch in the corner of Bilott’s office, where there is no clear distinction between inside and outside any more. The very visual scheme that seems to promise a bourgeois distinction of space ends up reiterating the futility of trying to parse space in this way, reiterating that bourgeois thresholds are destined to collapse inwards and involute if they are applied too rigorously to the events unfolding in the film and in the case.
In combination, the Christmas scene and the scene in Bilott’s office foreshadow the joy of the medical findings, followed by the depression that ensues when DuPont fails to respect them. Yet they also suggest that the peculiar patience and endurance required to fight corporate destruction and environmental catastrophe must now come from outside the bourgeois family unit. Finally, the two very different part of the film – the story told by the screenplay and the story told by the cinematography – converge completely on Haynes’ insistence that the bourgeois family unit has become a self-defeating structure from which to oppose climate catastrophe. Just after he gets the news about the medical results, but before he finds out about DuPont’s response, Bilott embraces Sarah in their living room, in the closest we have yet come to an image of them in domestic harmony. Yet instead of dwelling on this domestic backdrop, Haynes shifts to a Tepanyaki restaurant, where Bilott, Sarah and his children are forced to perform their family restoration in public, amidst the heightened theatricality and ceremony typical of the Tepnanyaki experience. Even at this moment of maximum harmony, then, the bourgeois family unit doesn’t fully correlate to Bilott’s experience of the case, or at least can’t be properly harmonised to correspond to it.
In legal thrillers of this kind, bourgeois family space has often been presented as a reprieve from the law, or as an emotional adjunct that permits the lawyer to keep functioning in a professional sphere. Here, however, the bourgeois hearth is incapable of fighting against corporate corruption in this indirect manner, since corporate toxicity has literally contaminated every domestic fixture, while claiming to protect it from contamination. The very bourgeois apparatus that Bilott might use to counter DuPont has already been coated and contamined with the very toxicity he is fighting against, which is perhaps why the bourgeois family becomes a kind of self-defeating prospect in and of itself during the later part of Dark Waters, in the same way that the poisoned water of Parkersburg is forced to take on the affective burden of a chemical burden that was initially designed to repel water. Both depending upon, and repelled by, the water that flows through Parkersburg, Bilott’s family feels somewhat aborted from the very start – like a prospect the film can never quite process or address while still staying focused on the corporate and environmental narrative.
This forces Bilott into an unenviable position where he has to effectively sacrifice his family – and his sense of himself as a family man – to perceive the case in its full ramificiations. In fact, this is part of DuPont’s strategy, since the company have infiltrated the bourgeois sphere so completely that they can bank on simply stretching out the dispute proceedings so that Bilott is forced to let go of his family, and then his own body, simply to keep up with them. During the seven year testing period, all his sense of community, connectivity and collectivity is deflected into the case, as he takes four pay cuts, jettisons all his other clients, and then suffers a minor stroke, placing him in hospital where a doctor informs Sarah, and his boss Tom Terp, played by Tim Robbins, that he is guaranteed to have a major stroke if he maintains the same workload. Yet this also prompts the key redemptive moment in the film, as Sarah advocates for Bilott by admitting to Tom that her husband has risked his family life, and his working life, “for a man in a town he didn’t even know,” but that this “isn’t failure.”
Sarah’s comments here speak to a crisis in bourgeois time as much as space, and the inadequacy of bourgeois time in thinking through environmental trauma, which transcends the familial and generational cycles that typically dictate continuity in the Western world. As the film proceeds, we realise that DuPont has already traversed bourgeois temporality, suffusing so many products with Teflon that it’s impossible to recall them, resulting in a process of bioaccumulation that will remain long after current bourgeois structures of time have passed. Just as the early scenes blends exteriors and interiors into a spatiality that displaces the nuclear family unit, so the odd pacing of the film, often abbreviated but just as often distended, prevents us from neatly compartmentalizing family time from other types of time, or using bourgeois time as a model for the temporality of the film as a whole. This produces a pervasive dissonance and disjunction between the events occurring in Bilott’s family and the progress of the case – sometimes they lag behind, sometimes they jump ahead, but they’re never quite in sync – and leads one of the later judges on the case to comically observe that going through all the disputes filed by DuPoint would last until 2890.
The final note of Dark Waters, then, is a dissolution of bourgeois space and time to make way for a more open and provisional futurity that resists the nuclear family and climate catastrophe as part of the same problem. Rather than providing us with a comforting resolution, the closing titles inform us, bluntly, that PTOA is now in the blood of 99% of all humans; that TPOA has infiltrated virtually every living organism on the planet; that DuPont is still trafficking in “forever chemicals” that haven’t been disclosed or regulated; and that Bilott is “still fighting” (his last words) to get medical monitoring for his clients, or at least those clients who are still alive, before we cut to the real plaintiffs who appeared in the cast. This, then, is one of the most self-critical and self-reflexive of Haynes’ films – his most restless since Far From Heaven – turning his own bourgeois crisis inside out as a call to action that has already done some good by causing stocks in DuPont to decline. In a late capitalist world, economic resistance is often the most effective form of resistance, and Dark Waters starts from that praxis, while also enjoining us to envision a different futurity.
Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Haynes wants us to recognise that the two catastrophes of the film – the collapse of the nuclear family, and environmental catastrophe – have already occurred, and should be embraced as part of the same process. In the end, it feels apt that we never return to those swimmers from 1976, who we glimpse during the opening credits, since Dark Waters is not a film about finding justice for a small number of people, and perhaps not even a film about finding total justice for any one person, but part of the evolving textuality of the lawsuit itself, which still seems likely to span generations, meaning that many people in the present will never see justice. In that sense, Dark Waters finally reminded me of Charles Reznikoff’s objectivist poem Testimony, which is comprised of many excerpts from court records between 1885 and 1915. While Haynes’ film is very different in style and address, there’s a similar desire here to launch the film into the heart of the legal drama that it is describing and enacting, and encourage the audience to follow, while insisting, at every turn, that the future we fear is already here, demanding our work.