Jacob Richardson | 01/03/2020
Dark Waters is perfectly serviceable, but largely uninspired.
Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is a corporate defense attorney, working for Taft Stettinius & Hollister for boss Tom Terp (Tim Robbins). One of their key clients is Dupont - a famed chemical company and the creators of teflon. When Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) comes to his office and begs for his help, Bilott finds himself embroiled in a legal scandal that puts a strain on his job, a strain on his relationship with a key client, and a strain on his family life with his wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway).
This legal drama, directed by Todd Haynes, plays out exactly how you imagine it will. Haynes treats this material with the sort of cliche directorial choices that reduce its palatability and impact. It makes Dark Waters simultaneously interesting and boring; a perplexing mix that has you longing for the end of its 2 hour, 6 minute duration; both because you are interested in finding out the ending, and because you are interested in escaping.
Mark Ruffalo plays the lead with a persistently dour look that matches the colour palette of the film, and the tone of its content. He does a perfectly acceptable job with the material, but there is nothing in Mario Correa’s screenplay (adapted from Nathaniel Rich’s NYT article) that gives him something truly meaty to chew on - so instead we get a lot of dialogue driven confrontations where Ruffalo has to play meek, coupled with a myriad of cliched scenes with him doing legal research. Indeed, one of his sudden realisations while reading through documents is so hilariously trope-like, you’re liable to laugh out loud. When he does get anything close to a great line, or a powerful scene, Ruffalo’s acting capability stands out and carries the film.
The supporting cast is mixed in the extreme. Robbins is great as the understanding but commercially minded boss - and delivers a particularly powerful spiel in an internal meeting about a class action. Camp does a lot with his role, but it is difficult to get past his choice of accent which frequently jars. Hathaway, meanwhile, feels wildly out of place in this film - sidelined in a role that is utterly thankless and completely redundant. It is an absolute waste of Hathaway.
Where Dark Waters does succeed is in the tale it has to tell. Building off Rich’s article, the film is engrossing in the content, and the sheer shock horror of true history. The implications of the revelations in this film will stay with you long after the memory of its stock standard structure fades.
Dark Waters never delivers a vehicle as interesting as it’s true history roots deserves.