Reel Reviews | Dark Waters

By Charles Kirkland Jr.

Mark Ruffalo stars in the latest legal drama based on a true story.

When Wilbur Tennant shows up at the law firm where corporate lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) works, he is a desperate and angry man looking to make the DuPont company pay for the damage that they have done in his West Virginia hometown.  He believes the company is poisoning the water on his farm and it has killed his cattle.  As Bilott reluctantly looks into the case at his grandmother’s request, he slowly begins to realize how insidious and damaging DuPont has been to not just Tennant but to the whole community. 

Based upon a true story and a magazine article by Nathaniel Rich, Dark Waters is written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Mario Correa and Rich and directed by Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Velvet Goldmine).  Waters stars Ruffalo with Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Mare Willingham, and William Jackson Harper.  Carnahan seems to specialize in the “based on true story” film having done Deepwater Horizon and this year’s Mosul as his last two films.  This is Todd Haynes’ second foray into this field counting his Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There.  Haynes does have two rock biopics upcoming one on Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, the other on Peggy Lee.

Dark Waters is the standard legal whistleblower drama that follows the format of those who came before it.  There’s the small-time lawyer who is given a case where he has to go up against a large company for the benefit of the world.  This is that story.  It’s David vs. Goliath.  It’s The China Syndrome, Silkwood and Erin Brokovich all rolled up into one. 

Ruffalo’s muted performance is interesting to see.   After seeing his work in the Marvel showcases, it is a nice change of pace to see him in a more introspective and focused performance.  Being the center of the movie, Ruffalo does a good job of showing how the fight against the monster company affects him.  Oscar award winner, Anne Hathaway plays Robert Bilott’s wife, Sarah.  Sarah’s emotional journey mirrors the intended journey for the audience.  From the initially confused disbelief to horror to outrage and anger, Hathaway excels in this part.

Despite the performances of Ruffalo and Hathaway, the movie never rises to the level of excellence of its predecessors.  The problem lies in the screenplay.  Whistleblower dramas are at their best when they emotionally connect with the audience.  This movie fails to connect.  Although the audience is allowed to sympathize with the plight of Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), his character is so brusque and ornery that he is almost unlikeable.  Without a connection to that person (and other victims), the film has a cold feel that mimics its gray color palette. 

Dark Waters is rated PG-13 for thematic content, some disturbing images, and strong language.  It tells us an important story that essentially affects almost all life on this planet but instead of anger and outrage, this movie leaves the audience with just a sense of resignation.  Again, we have seen this movie before it was just executed much better.

Grade:  C-