I am either all for a solid legal thriller that succeeds because of the craft or just a big fan of movies where Mark Ruffalo gets to a breaking point, shouting, “They knew!” at a co-worker. Whichever the case, Dark Waters delivers on both. Here’s a riveting film focused on a true story concerning the corrupt activities of a major corporation and the one attorney who decides to risk everything in search of justice. It’s made all the more interesting due to Todd Haynes’ presence as the director who strips away the artfulness akin to his usual style of filmmaking in favor of something more conventionally crowd-pleasing.
Ruffalo stars as Robert Bilott, a corporate defense attorney who turns things right back around on one of the corporations he would usually be defending thanks to a box of tapes that falls into his lap, courtesy of Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp). Tennant is a farmer whose cows are dying. His land is suffering in general, and he believes he knows why. The DuPont chemical company is polluting the water. Can Robert prove this? Well, the film finds him spending years doing the research and putting in the work to make things right.
Dark Waters doesn’t waste much time getting to the point. There’s some quirkiness in presenting Tennant, let alone the life Robert lives. However, we quickly see Robert won over thanks to his conscience. Despite confusion and doubts from his wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) and boss Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), it becomes clear Robert isn’t going to give this up.
Fortunately, the film knows how to deliver on the urgency that develops. In Robert’s interactions with a DuPont executive, Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber), things go from friendly to menacing really quick. As Robert shows, he’s not about to back off of what seemed like a simple misunderstanding, Donnelly hisses, “hick,” at Robert, before sending him a room full of records to ideally keep him occupied and further from discovering the truth than he can handle.
In these moments, we see the conviction Ruffalo shows as Robert. While presenting a slouched presence, with a bit of a mumble to his words, it’s clear Robert is not the kind of person who gives in to pressure. It’s a terrific role for Ruffalo to sink into. Even while having a moment to shout, “They knew!” at Robbins (who gets a big showy moment of his own, making the audience fully aware of the importance of staying true to moral values, as opposed to being lured in by the comfort of greedy corporate culture), it’s still a dialed down performance sitting nicely with his work as journalist Michael Rezendes in the similarly structured Best Picture winner Spotlight.
Even looking beyond Ruffalo, who is featured in nearly every scene, you have the nature of this case, which becomes more interesting the deeper Robert gets into the details. A standout sequence allows him to pause his research and explain why this is so important to his wife, who needs a reason to keep supporting the man who has pushed aside so many aspects of his life. Here we not only see Hathaway do fine work in a standard wife role that requires reaction shots and concerned dialogue, we get the bigger picture.
While not attempting to subvert the narrative structure with transgressive themes (though you could argue identity still plays a role here), Haynes is a strong enough filmmaker to make the most out of settings as straightforward as a law office, a courtroom, and the suburbs. He plays with the editing of the explanation scene I mentioned to maximize the crucial nature of Robert’s work best. Plenty is going on in terms of contrasts to show the stark atmosphere whenever visiting Tennant’s farm. Haynes even finds angles to make Robert’s arguments feel like daggers when bringing up key points right up to important figures representing DuPont.
There’s also restraint in how we see various turns of events occur. Dark Waters spans many years to really show everything Robert went through in getting real results for all of his efforts. Through that, we watch the characters age, Robert and Sarah’s kids grow up, and various figures involved in this case come and go. While not a flashy film, it’s not subtle in many instances either, nor does it need to be. That comes out of the film’s conviction.
A movie like Dark Waters clearly comes as a passion project for Ruffalo, an activist who can afford to step away from The Avengers for a bit to pull a bunch of talented folks together and highlight a true story such as this. Fortunately, he’s working with a lot of talented people. The screenplay by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan feels like the sort of properly researched work that tapped into both the real events, as well as the underlying humanity to help flesh out these characters we’re invested in over two hours.
There’s a very good movie to be found here, particularly once you realize how invested you’ve become in wanting to understand the truth. Looking at a massive corporation as the true big bad may not seem as inherently thrilling as the church corruption found in Spotlight, but Dark Waters still serves as a fine companion film allowing Ruffalo and company a chance to shine as performers and filmmakers, as well as shine a light on a story with upsetting actualities, as well as rewarding results. In the meantime, just be careful when handling Teflon.