Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Movie Review: Dark Waters

Dark Waters **** / *****
Directed by: Todd Haynes.
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa based on the magazine article by Nathaniel Rich.
Starring: Mark Ruffalo (Robert Bilott), Anne Hathaway (Sarah Bilott), Tim Robbins (Tom Terp), Bill Camp (Wilbur Tennant), Bill Pullman (Harry Dietzler), Mare Winningham (Darlene Kiger), Victor Garber (Phil Donnelly), William Jackson Harper (James Ross), Louisa Krause (Karla), Scarlett Hicks (Amy Tennant).
After a brilliant opening scene reminiscent of Jaws, with the big bad shark replaced by something more insidious and invisible, Dark Waters settles into a well-worn story so familiar that for the first 30 minutes or so, you wonder if the film is going to do anything we haven’t seen before. To a certain extent, it never really does – it is the kind of story where an everyman takes on the giant corporation in court, in the type of film that you’ve seen countless time before from The Verdict to A Civil Action to Erin Brockovich, etc. – so you sense where this is going, and you are correct. And yet, after all that scene setting in those first 30 minutes, Dark Waters does get better. In part, it’s because of Mark Ruffalo – who is great in the lead role, and gets greater as it moves along, and the case grinds him down both physically and emotionally, until near the end where he seems like a shell of the man we saw at the beginning. Part of that is because of Todd Haynes – the brilliant director behind such masterpieces as Safe, Far From Heaven, I’m Not There and Carol – who at first seems like an odd choice to direct this (and to be honest, I still think he is) – but who is so good behind the camera he elevates the film anyway. And part of it is a very modern, 2019 sentiment about fighting against corporation. This is a film that seems more realistic about the chances of winning – and shows the costs even if you do win. The system is rigged, and you aren’t going to unrig it – something the film believes right to the end.
The movie takes place over a 15-year period, and starts with Robert Bilott (Ruffalo), who has just been made partner at the prestigious Taft firm – a firm that basically makes all its money defending chemical companies. The one major company they don’t represent is Du Pont – the biggest of them all. When an acquaintance of his grandmothers, Wilbur (Bill Camp) shows up with a complaint about Du Pont – Robert’s instincts are to ignore it – pass it off to a local lawyer, and go about his very successful, burgeoning career. But he just cannot do it. What starts as a small case, balloons into a massive one – about how Du Pont poisoned a town in West Virginia, and lied to, well, everyone in the world.
Ruffalo is great in these type of roles – those of the idealist, who keeps pressing, no matter the cost. It’s also refreshing to see him in a non-franchise movie for the first time since 2015’s Spotlight (when I get a little annoyed when good actors join the MCU or DC or whatever – this is the reason. It takes up so much of their time, they don’t do anything else). He is a great in those scenes as the dogged lawyer – going through box after box after box of discovery - surrounded by them in scenes that may remind you of All the President’s Men or Zodiac – the film definitely wants to be a 1970s style paranoid thriller at times. He is even better as the film progresses – when the case has taken its toll, when he’s won, but really won nothing. When he has essentially sacrificed everything for the case, with no results – and is a beaten, broken man (at least, for the time being).
The films supporting cast is good as well – from Camp, chewing the scenery as the gruff farmer, to Bill Pullman as a charming, trial attorney with his Southern charm, to Victor Garber as the personification of corporate greed and entitlement. For a while, you wonder why Tim Robbins is in the film in a rather thankless role as Ruffalo’s boss – before he delivers a speech, that frankly, is as out of place as Ruffalo’s similar one in Spotlight was. Anne Hathaway is even a more thankless role as Robert’s long suffering wife. The film also gives her a speech about how she’s “not just the wife” – which wouldn’t be necessary if in the rest of the film she isn’t portrayed as just the wife.
Still, the film works. Haynes and his regular, brilliant cinematographer Edward Lachman make the film look great – this is a grey, overcast film throughout, which just makes everyone look even more miserable. There are also quite a number of smart, subtle shots throughout the film that highlight the underpinnings of what’s really at work here – the class structure that allows these kind of things to survive and thrive.
I’ve heard a couple of auteurist pieces about the film, and how it connects to Haynes’ other work – but frankly, I don’t really see it. This feels like an example of a very talented director acting as a director for hire – and doing a great job. These types of films used to be a dime a dozen – now, we barely see them at all. The film doesn’t totally get away from the clichés inherent in the genre – and doesn’t really try to reinvent the wheel. But it is solid, intelligent, well-acted and well-made mainstream entertainment for adults – and that’s rare these days.

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