[Review] ‘DARK WATERS’ – a conventional legal drama that uncovers literal toxic truths

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James Clay // Film Critic

DARK WATERS

Rated PG-13, 126 minutes.
Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Bill Camp, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins

There’s a major power struggle going on in America today. The wealthy and corporations have it all, and it leaves very little wiggle room for the working class to have their voices heard, or for any progress to be made for those merely trying not to get swallowed up when greed comes to town. This brings us to a fascinating time in American history where whistleblowers are either praised, maligned, or outright cast out from our society.

These are things we already knew, yet producer and actor Mark Ruffalo’s passion project, DARK WATERS, sees him collaborating with Todd Haynes (CAROL) – a daring independent filmmaker who is known for subverting expectations, but this time he’s playing it straight. It’s well-crafted, no doubt, but it’s also an underwhelming tale about how little the barometer for change moves when corporations are in full control of the economy.

Unfortunately for Ruffalo and Haynes, the problem will be finding an audience to listen to their very true story that is haunting, if not already apparent. Ruffalo and Haynes, along with scriptwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan (WORLD WAR Z) and Mario Correa, come across a dubious discovery, from a cooking tool that’s found in nearly every kitchen that’s alarming. Yet, the message at its core sadly won’t be able to get to the eyes of those who need to witness this story the most.

There’s a grim center to the story of corporate chemical defense attorney turned activist Rob Bilott (Ruffalo), who begins to champion everyday people who have become gravely ill due to negligence by the megalomaniacal company Dupont. He begins his 20-year journey to bring justice toward the working class when Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a slack-jawed Appalachian farmer, barges into Billott’s office. Tennant has lost over 100 cattle who are dying off by brain deterioration that leads to insanity and congenital disabilities.

We get a glimpse of what the death and despair feel like in a sobering moment where Bilott witnesses Tennant blowing the head off one of his infected livestock. It shows no matter our intelligence level man or beast, we all deserve to have a purpose.

Like many recent films such as SPOTLIGHT, THE REPORT and quite possibly THE LAUNDROMAT (depending on your threshold for absurdity), DEEP WATERS brings a professional quality that makes this dense subject matter palatable for audience consumption. This project is driven by empathy, and the tone of the film comes from an honest place that focuses more on the process than a character study of Bilott himself. In a way, this is the antithetical approach to Steven Soderbergh’s ERIN BROCKOVICH, which gave Julia Roberts her first Oscar for a rousing character portrayal that still holds up and continues to make waves today.

Tennant pleads with Billot to hear his case because its clear Dupont is dumping chemical runoff onto his land and water supply. With him is a box full of VHS tape evidence and a hell of a case that local law enforcement, attorneys and citizens shake off because Dupont is what is keeping the economy afloat. Becoming self-obsessed with the case, he brings the evidence to senior partner Tom Terp (Tim Robbins). Terp advises against the pursuit, while his wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway wearing a few choice wigs) is an attorney in her own right who sees their financially secure life slip away.

Not exactly sure what Hathaway is doing in the film other than the opportunity to collaborate with the visionary director. It’s just a wonder why she doesn’t have more to do other sit back while her man goes to work. There are moments where she offers her legal expertise and a line where she scolds Robbins about “not just being a wife at home.” This dialogue is certainly appreciated, but it doesn’t rise above the tired old cliche.

The pulverizing day in day out approach to the film is more than likely is accurate to Billott’s cinematic quest for the truth. There isn’t much to his character portrayal except having to recite loads of legal jargon for the camera. While this is atypical work for Haynes, DARK WATERS finds Ruffalo – who fashions himself as an environmental activist – right at home. The two meldings of their minds may not be able to keep audiences away from their streaming devices, although, unlike many theatrical releases, this one at least has a reason for existing.

Haynes never really imprints the mark of his auteur status on the film’s style, only empowering the message with somber scenes that play out in a succession of moments that can’t help from getting caught up in drab exposition that is just buoyant enough to bring the themes to the surface. If it were not for the slight moments of levity, and showy, yet earnest performance from Camp, the story of contaminated water would be caught in a forever case of the Mondays.

Haynes teams back up with his trusty cinematographer Edward Lachman to bring a dark palette to the film that shows off the literal toxicity creeping into the frame. It has an engaging visual style that displays muted architecture and weathered faces as it shows the static state of gaining traction against corporate blockades.

Despite the best efforts on all fronts, with a story that deserves to be told in narrative form, DARK WATERS is hampered by its own devices, and it puts the creators in a tough position. If they inflict too much style, the message gets bogged down. (Again, look at THE LAUNDROMAT). If they go too dry with story-telling, it will bore audiences to tears. The movie lands somewhere between progress being possible and realizing that maybe the damage has been done.

Grade: B-

DARK WATERS is now playing in theaters.