Dark Waters Review
'Dark Waters' is a story that needs to be told. It should just be told better.
Release Date: November 27, 2019
MPAA Rating: PG-13
A corporate defense attorney takes on an environmental lawsuit against a chemical company that exposes a lengthy history of pollution.
Director: Todd Haynes
Screenwriters: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Mario Correa, Nathaniel Rich
Producers: Pamela Koffler, Mark Ruffalo, Jeff Skoll, Christine Vachon
Cast: Mark Ruffalo (Robert Bilott), Anne Hathaway (Sarah Bilott), Tim Robbins (Tom Terp), Bill Pullman (Harry Dietzler), William Jackson Harper (James Ross), Louisa Krause (Karla), Victor Garber (Phil Donnelly), Mare Winningham (Darlene Kiger), Bill Camp (Wilbur Tennant), Scarlett Hicks (Amy Tennant)
Editor: Affonso Goncalves
Cinematographer: Edward Lachman
Production Designer: Hannah Beachler
Casting Director: Laura Rosenthal
Music Score: Marcelo Zarvos
When he’s not making Avengers flicks, Mark Ruffalo does movies in which his character uncovers scandals. He did it wonderfully a few years ago in Spotlight. Now, he does it much less wonderfully in Dark Waters.
Dark Waters stars Ruffalo as Robert Bilott, a corporate defense attorney whose firm represents the DuPont Chemical Company. A farmer named Wilbur Tennant (Compliance’s Bill Camp) approaches Robert with claims that the chemical company is dumping waste into a lake, waste that is, in turn, killing his livestock. At first, Robert dismisses the claims, as he knows DuPont to be compliant with all environmental laws. But after doing a little digging, Robert becomes convinced that not only is DuPont poisoning the waterways, but the pollution is a danger to people as well as livestock.
The screenplay for Dark Waters was written by Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z) and Mario Correa (Electoral Dysfunction), who were inspired by a New York Times Magazine article by Nathaniel Rich. It’s an important story, and one that needs to be told, but director Todd Haynes (Carol, Wonderstruck) pulls too many punches in trying to present the facts, so Dark Waters winds up being a pretty dull movie.
It’s clear that Dark Waters is trying to be this year’s Spotlight. The problem is that lawyers just aren’t as interesting as investigative journalists. There are moments of excitement here and there, but Haynes shifts away from them quickly instead of leaning into them. The most riveting scene in the film comes when Robert notices some shadowy figures following him to his car in a dark parking garage after meeting with the DuPont bigwigs. He gets into his car and pauses for a few deep breaths before turning the key to start it up. The suspense in palatable, and even the payoff is satisfying. These are the aspects of the story that Haynes should have brought to the forefront of the movie, the paranoid cloak-and-dagger stuff. Instead, as it is, Dark Waters would have been better served being a documentary.
Mark Ruffalo owns Dark Waters, for better and worse. The actor is not only the name above the title, but he served as producer, and is in just about every scene of the film. He is capably backed by a support cast that includes Anne Hathaway (Colossal) as his wife, and Tim Robbins (Jacob’s Ladder), Bill Pullman (Independence Day), and William Jackson Harper (Midsommar) as fellow attorneys. Although the acting is okay, one gets the feelings that the cast is let down by the sterile, matter-of-fact approach that the movie takes.
It takes more than a based-on-actual-events story interspersed with cutaway drone shots of the rural cityscape and slightly slowed-down sequences showing the downtrodden locals to make a compelling movie, but that’s pretty much all that there is to Dark Waters. And that’s disappointing, because audiences should be able to expect more from both Mark Ruffalo and Todd Haynes.