- Emma Simmonds
- 24 February 2020
Mark Ruffalo is the unshowy hero of a righteous environmental drama from Todd Haynes, based on a true story
A public health emergency makes a big screen splash in the latest from revered filmmaker Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, Carol). It boasts blood-boiling subject matter, has cinema's favourite everyman on the case, while the facts of the matter are laid out with care. But if Dark Waters admirably bangs the drum on behalf of us all, it doesn't quite rouse as you'd hope.
Based on a true, truly galling story, it sees Mark Ruffalo's corporate defence attorney Robert Bilott switch sides when the plight of an acquaintance of his grandmother tugs at his conscience. West Virginian farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) has seen nearly 200 cows ravaged by disease, believing the run-off from a chemical company's landfill to be the source of his misfortune. The company in question are the powerful DuPont and, with the begrudging support of his boss Tom (Tim Robbins), Robert takes them on.
If things start sluggishly, the spiralling nature of the narrative certainly sucks you in, nevertheless it lacks the conviction, idiosyncrasy or suspense of something like Spotlight or The Insider – for all Haynes' incredible qualities, a director more adept at thrillers might have really made it motor. Bilott may be a bit unreadable and lacking in charisma – not every screen crusader can be Erin Brockovich – but Ruffalo invests him with a quiet integrity, as we watch this former corporate stooge squirm in a variety of settings and become isolated from peers and family alike.
Dark Waters doesn't shout about its triumphs, yet in other areas it can feel heavy-handed: the blue-grey fog under which much of the movie solemnly sits; some on-the-nose dialogue; the exuberant gruffness of Camp and Bill Pullman; while our protagonist's domestic situation is so joyless and devoid of warmth you have to wonder what Anne Hathaway saw in the role of Robert's crotchety wife.
However, for all its flaws, Dark Waters remains interesting and impactful, the scope, severity and ongoing nature of its scandal lending it alarming relevance. Moreover, there's some juicy commentary on the rich-poor divide and it serves as a pertinent reminder of both the difference one person can make, and of what's achievable when formidable minds become forces for good.
General release from Fri 28 Feb.