“Dude, have you seen this?” Tim Robbins asks, whipping out his phone.
I’m seated across from the inveterate actor and activist at a coffee table in the tony midtown hotel where he’s doing press for his latest film, Dark Waters. There’s a shadow of exhausted urgency on his face as he scrolls through his phone for a New York Times article from the day before.
It’s not that he’s going off-topic from the movie to talk current events; it’s that current events continue running ever in lockstep with the subject of Dark Waters, a film about the ongoing legal battle to prevent DuPont Chemicals from poisoning its users.
The Times article he mentions is about the Trump administration’s plans to limit the EPA’s scientific research in prescribing public health regulations. While the administration regularly touts the vaguely defined benefits of its “historic deregulation,” the new film drills deep into the deadly truth of what deregulation means for average citizens.
“Basically, it’s more profit for some greedy sociopaths that are conveniently looking the other way from science to justify their own greed,” Robbins says with a withering, complicated realignment of his eyebrows. “It’s like they timed it perfectly for us.”
The article on the EPA may have not had much impact, swallowed up by the jet engine turbine of impeachment hearing news—another timely tale of accountability—but Dark Waters seems destined to make a bigger splash.
A procedural with a pulse
The film follows an unlikely protagonist for a story about the hazardous misdeeds of a chemical company: corporate defense attorney Robert Bilott (played by Mark Ruffalo, who also produced.) Although Bilott spent most of his career coming to the aid of conglomerates, the Cincinnati lawyer is pulled into a fight against DuPont as a favor to his rural West Virginian family. Somewhat reluctantly, he visits a farmer from the region, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), and is horrified by what he finds. An alarming number of Tennant’s cows have been dying and many of his calves are being born with deformities—enough to suggest that nearby DuPont may have contaminated the water supply. With the even more reluctant (at first) support of a more senior partner at his firm (Robbins), Bilott sets out to unravel the story. He soon finds that the DuPont plant has dumped a chemical called C-8 into the Ohio River, tainting the local water and causing untold illnesses ranging from blackened teeth to terminal cancer—and not just for cows.
Dark Waters is a procedural with a pulse, the unholy spawn of John Grisham and Stephen King, except entirely rooted in real life.
Ruffalo read the article the film is based on, which ran in the New York Times Magazine in early 2016, and quickly sought to option the rights. He’d been looking for just such a project, something that would marry his ongoing activism with a compelling story. He wasn’t the only one interested, however. As he started bidding on the rights, it turned out he was bidding against Participant Media, the company that produced the Oscar-winning Spotlight, for which Ruffalo was nominated as Best Supporting Actor. Ruffalo and the company opted to join forces to make the movie together.
Ruffalo had been a producer on several films before, including his directorial debut, 2010’s Sympathy for Delicious, but this would be the first project he threw his full weight behind as a three-time Oscar nominee and angry green anchor of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He was instrumental in bringing on board acclaimed director Todd Haynes, along with Robbins, and he wanted to be as involved in developing the script as possible.
“We have these big, important issues to talk about and I just feel like storytelling is how you really get to people and transcend politics,” Ruffalo says in a separate interview. “I thought this was an important story that’s really kind of a crowd pleaser, but you could also tell it as a thriller or a horror flick. And at the same time, it’s about a true story, which is really fucking frightening. It’s out there, there’s this menace around us.”
Indeed, the opening scene holds viewers in Friday the 13th-style thrall. A group of rascally teens go for an ill-advised nighttime dip in an off-limits river. The deadly threat that awaits them in the murky shallows, however, isn’t a hockey masked machete-fetishist but rather a boat filled with chemicals. Similar scares abound throughout the film as Robert Bilott delves deeper into the human toll that DuPont’s water-tainting has taken.
When Robbins first heard that DuPont’s Teflon was linked with cancer—after Bilott helped bring the information to public light in the early aughts—he felt as afraid as those swimming teenagers arguably should have been. He went through his kitchen and quickly got rid of any cookware coated with the stick-free substance, lest his kids be exposed to it.
“For me, it was just another confirmation of the toxicity of different consumer products,” Robbins says. “We have a long history of that in this country. I mean, my dad started smoking cigarettes because his doctor told him to.”
After the initial story about DuPont’s Ohio River chemical dump and the corrosive composition of Teflon caused a stir, the company spent the 15 years or so that followed tied up in litigation. During that time, DuPont strived to make the controversy around its products die down, paying $671 million in 2017 to settle 3,550 lawsuits with the people of Parkersburg, West Virginia. DuPont has also rebranded into three separate companies recently, spinning off a separate fourth company called Chemours to make C-8-free Teflon, and unveiling a new logo to “re-introduce” the company to the public.
Putting a spotlight on activism
Ruffalo also hopes to reintroduce DuPont—and the people the company harmed—to new and wider audiences as deregulation continues trending upward.
“I hope that the movie starts to spur bigger conversation about who our government is actually working on behalf of,” the actor and producer says. “And what we can do to make sure that we are being protected by the systems we have given up a lot of our power and freedom in order to protect us.”
It wouldn’t be the first time that one of Ruffalo’s movies sparked meaningful conversation beyond the box office. Vatican Radio, official radio service of the Holy See, praised Spotlight, his film about sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. A commentator on the service said the film helped the U.S. Catholic church “to accept the sin and admit it publicly and pay the consequences.”
Whether Dark Waters leads DuPont to get further in touch with its conscience, we may never know. However, Bank of America/Merrill Lynch suggested in a note to clients this week that the film could heighten scrutiny of chemical manufacturers, exposing 3M, for example, to “risks from potential legislative action” inspired by the film, which could cost the company up to $102 billion.
Even if that result isn’t achieved, though, Ruffalo will continue his activism offscreen as well as on.
Days after our interview, the actor headed to Washington, D.C., with Robert Bilott, the lawyer he plays in the film, to testify on a hearing about dangerous chemicals.