Movie Review: Dark Waters

Based on a true story, Dark Waters is a behind-the-scenes legal thriller and character portrait that covers the tireless efforts of Roger Bilott, a defence attorney who took on large pharmaceutical company, DuPont. It’s inspired by the The New York Times Magazine article ‘The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare’ by Nathaniel Rich. Directed by Far from Heaven, I’m Not There and Carol’s Todd Haynes, it’s another moody, stylish and contemplative film, starring Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway and Tim Robbins.

Dark Waters is a stick-it-to-the-man underdog drama that simultaneously retains its biographical and historical integrity without losing its dramatic edge. Captivating, entertaining and thoughtful, Haynes keeps both feet firmly planted on the ground as the slow-burning thriller slowly immerses us in its cold and real world. Loosely modelled on Erin Brockovich, Dark Waters also has an environmental slant as Bilott’s legal mission exposes the chemical company’s dirty history of pollution. Journeying with the character who accepts a case that literally hits home, the far-reaching injustice gradually absorbs his every waking moment. Operating on little sleep and obsessing over cryptic details, the pending legal action pits him against the chemical giant, their expensive legal team and even his hometown as he struggles to balance his roles as a lawyer, husband and father.

Mark Ruffalo is full of pluck, an actor famous for going through hundreds of auditions before finally making it in the beast that is Hollywood, calling his career a 10 year overnight success. While the unassuming, charming and likable actor has found his place in the Marvel universe as The Hulk, he’s equally adept in the realm of art house drama as evidenced by The Kids Are Alright, Foxcatcher and Spotlight. He doesn’t disappoint in Dark Waters, gaining some weight to normalise his character.

“Look away, I can feel your judgmental eyes burning holes in my overcoat.”

Returning to this arena after living large and saying things like “HULK SMASH”, he’s reaffirmed his prowess as a dramatic actor and spirited contender. A passion project for Ruffalo, who has been quite vocal in his environmental activism, Dark Waters speaks to the power of one and the cumulative effect of consistent efforts over time. Led by a committed, compelling and thorny performance from Ruffalo, the film has a sense of stoicism and conviction, reminding us of his role in Spotlight as his investigations lead him into a protracted legal battle with DuPont.

Ruffalo is ably supported by respected name stars Hathaway and Robbins, playing his ever-supportive wife and understanding boss in small yet nuggetty performances. As allies, they’re behind his efforts, rooting for him through the highs, the lows and the throes of a personal vendetta. Bill Camp deserves a special mention as his troubled client, Wilbur Tennant. Playing an isolated cattle farmer whose diminishing livestock issue is putting his family on the precipice of financial ruin, he makes the role seem documentary-authentic with a naturalistic and homespun turn.

As brooding, tenacious and quietly confident as its colour palette, this all-rounder probably would have garnered a few Oscar nominations if it hadn’t been such a strong and competitive year. Loaded with strong performances, a powerful true story, thoughtful drama and a sombre mood, Dark Waters delivers on the promise of its movie title. While possibly a little too slow-moving for some at just over 2 hours, it’s a film that rewards the patient and exudes the same instincts as its tenacious lead.

The bottom line: Powerful