Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5.
USA, 2019. Killer Films, Participant. Screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Mario Correa, based on the magazine article The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare by Nathaniel Rich. Cinematography by Edward Lachman. Produced by Pamela Koffler, Mark Ruffalo, Jeff Skoll, Christine Vachon. Music by Marcelo Zarvos. Production Design by Hannah Beachler. Costume Design by Christopher Peterson. Film Editing by Affonso Goncalves.
In 1998, two West Virginia farmers walk into the office of a law firm that defends big chemical companies and demand to see lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), telling him that they are acquainted with his grandmother before handing him a box of video tapes. Their farm, Bilott is told, is being contaminated by a nearby plant owned by DuPont Chemicals and it has been killing their livestock, which the video evidence will show. Hoping to brush the matter off, Bilott offers to refer them to a more appropriate legal defense before he looks into the matter but, devastated by what he finds in their case, he is inspired to stick with the case for more than twenty years (and is still doing so). DuPont manufactures Teflon, which contains a chemical that Bilott identifies after going through the company’s mountains of documents, discovering that PFOA aka C-8 enters our bodies and never leaves, likely responsible not only for the aforementioned animal deaths but also the high incidents of fatal illnesses in humans living near DuPont’s plant. Director Todd Haynes does his best to make this more than just your average David vs. Goliath legal drama and does his best to avoid the genre’s cliches, the comparisons to a superior film like Erin Brockovich or an inferior one like A Civil Action being easy to make and hard to ignore. The look of the film is dampened to suit the subject matter (mostly a hue of gun-metal blue for two hours) and helps prepare you for the outcome, an exposé of American corporate greed with one of the saddest and most disturbing endings, while a series of quiet, measured conversations between legal and scientific experts manage to hold your attention as effectively as a more exploitative film would. The strength with which the screenplay pares down over two decades of legal complications to the most interesting essentials also includes detours into personal drama that stand out as flaws; Haynes is determined to make a film about the corrosive nature of big business, never letting the company off the hook by turning Victor Garber, as DuPont’s attorney Phil Donnelly, into the ultimate villain the way a more conventional movie would do, but allows for appeals to mainstream popularity as if nervous about making a movie that is entirely procedural. Forays into Bilott’s home life put as sturdy an actor as Anne Hathaway (depicting Sarah Barlage, Bilott’s wife) through the paces of having to play the worn-out stereotype of the “Honey come to bed” role and giving her the worst dialogue in the movie (the moment that DuPont sends over hundreds of boxes for Bilott to pore through to honour their disclosure requirement, you know she’s going to have the “You’re never home” conversation, which to Barlage’s credit she managed, according to this film, to not do for at least ten years). This one gives you plenty to think about and is not a mood you can shake off easily.