The most important factor that separates Dark Waters from other true stories involving legal procedure, is that it doesn’t forget to tell the very human story that inspired it in the first place.
Message-driven thrillers like Dark Waters surely aren’t a new prospect. In fact, similar subject matter has been seen on the silver screen in the past thanks to the John Travolta legal thriller A Civil Action. Director Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters, based off of a script by writers Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, differs itself in some key respects from that previous movie. The most important factor that separates Dark Waters from other true stories involving legal procedure is that it doesn’t forget to tell the very human story that inspired it in the first place.
Based on the true story of Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate attorney who stumbled upon supposed ecological malfeasance at the hands of the DuPont Corporation, Dark Waters chronicles the case that Bilott makes against a partner his firm would have typically taken on under other circumstances. Through a long fought battle, the only thing Robert Bilott had in sight was revealing the truth, in hopes that it would do some good.
With that description, you’d expect the film to be overblown melodrama, with music swelling every time he uncovers a new fact. Not to mention that there’s the expectation of a required scattering of scenes where characters, such as Ruffalo’s protagonist and his wife, played by Anne Hathaway, would get into a shouting match about how important the proceedings are. While Dark Waters does have a couple scenes of drama, they don’t overwhelm the actual point of the movie. In fact, the selected usage of that sort of theatrics is part of what makes the finished product work so well, as it allows this film to operate as an entertaining and educational experience.
Dark Waters Isn’t A Total Legal Procedural, And That’s A Good Thing
Though the court case at the heart of Dark Waters carries a good amount of the film’s dramatic weight, Todd Haynes portrays the legal proceedings with more reality than most projects would care to allow. The pacing of the story always keeps the audience aware of just how long Robert Bilott’s journey to some sort of justice takes, and while you can feel that slowness to the progress his case is making, that’s on purpose.
Scenes of Mark Ruffalo interviewing people connected to his work, as well as a visually progressive visit to his firm’s filing room, show the hard work that Bilott did during the course of Dark Waters’ real-life legal battle. But through that passage of time, we see the personal consequences as Ruffalo’s protagonist faces pressures at home, and at work, fighting for something he truly believes in.
Mark Ruffalo Anchors A Stellar Cast Of Supporting Players
In those struggles, Mark Ruffalo gets to not only deliver a subdued and nuanced portrayal of Robert Bilott, he also gets to work with a supporting cast that never feels frivolous. From Bill Camp’s Wilbur Tennant, the farmer who lodges the complaint that gets Dark Waters rolling, to Tim Robbins’ portrayal of Bilott’s boss and mentor, Tom Terp, no one is wasted in however limited a capacity.
Even short appearances by character actors like Victor Garber and Bill Pullman help keep things moving, as their key figures acting are crucial to the story. But the relationship between Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway’s on-screen marriage is one that could have used a little more fleshing out, especially when the film uses what limited moments we have with her so well.
It’s still an important connection for Mark Ruffalo’s character to have on screen, but a little more balance could have been included when it comes to the partnership that he and Hathaway only get to barely tap into. Especially when the latter actor is given a moment that lands so perfectly, you can feel the echoes of the relationship that should have been there.
Dark Waters Is A Movie That Has A Message, And Knows How To Express It Organically
Dark Waters isn’t afraid to wear a message of corporate responsibility on its’ sleeve. The film is a total embodiment of its politics, right down to its production company’s mission statement and the casting of outspoken celebrity activists. That doesn’t water down its ultimate call to action, and nor does it get in the way of telling its story.
Lacking the manipulative tactics that lesser films would use to gain maximum empathy, Dark Waters is a tribute to the actual work that goes into fighting battles such as these. It also doesn’t forget to remind you of the real people that were a part of these events, and even has some of the actual participants playing cameo roles throughout.
Some may see Dark Waters lack of flashy drama as a drawback, but it actually serves the story better. With the film itself letting the audience react rather than dictating how they should be feeling, the punches it lands are all the more effective.
8 / 10 stars