From Erin Brockovich to Silkwood to All The President’s Men and more, it’s fair to say that the sub-genre of the ‘whistleblower’ movie has proven to be one of the most compelling and gripping over the years. As average joe movie watching citizen’s, we love the prospect of witnessing a cover up be exposed in many different ways, or at least I do! Whether political or chemical or anything in-between, these films always tend to be an exciting ride, and I was looking forward to seeing what Dark Waters would bring to the table.
Based on true events, the film tells the story of corporate lawyer Robert Bilott’s (Mark Ruffalo) decades long battle to uncover wrongdoing by the DuPont chemical corporation that resulted in widespread disease and death in a rural West Virginia city. The themes of water contamination, family connection and David vs Goliath struggles are all familiar to audiences in this kind of context, and overall it can be said that the film executes its key tropes and pointers very proficiently.
In my last review of Like A Boss, I referenced having a soft spot for that genre, and I realised whilst watching Dark Waters that I feel the same way about whistleblower, ‘little versus big’ movies as well. Whilst the film might not possess some of the more natural, warming charm, even comedy, of something like Erin Brockovich, it does pack more than its fair share of legal drama that for a couple of hours at a time, can make a viewer really feel like they are on the inside of something big and explosive.
Rather than being a story that has a lot of spectacular twists and turns, Dark Waters instead feels like an experience that feel inevitable from the start, and rather take the audience on a procedural journey to show just what it takes to get justice on such a large scale. In many ways, it feels comparable to last year’s The Report, both in tone and in style. Both pictures tell stories that feel inevitable from the very beginning, and both films are executed in a similarly muted, almost distant and detached kind of way. To keep going back to Erin Brockovich, that is a narrative in which Julia Roberts plays the part of audience surrogate, with an extreme heart on her sleeve. Both Dark Waters and The Report, however, tell their stories in more professional, ‘educated’ ways, with protagonists exercising all of their legal and political expertise to reach their goals. In times like these where it doesn’t always feel like ‘having one’s day in court’ means much anymore *ahem impeachment ahem*, films like these can provide a really cathartic experience whilst also being great dramatic cinema at the same time.
You won’t be surprised to hear that Mark Ruffalo is excellent as Robert Bilott. One of the few actors who seems to be effortlessly managing the balance of being a blockbuster star who also partakes in smaller, more varied projects, Ruffalo gives you all of the slightly awkward, secret genius lawyer type vibes that you could possibly want. There is a determined intensity in his performance that really sets the tone for the fight ahead, and both the acting and the execution of the film in general do a really good job of emphasising just how gruelling a battle like this is on every aspect of one’s life from family to friends to personal health. Also named as a producer, Ruffalo clearly has a good eye for what kinds of projects he thinks he can excel in.
The overall quality of the film is massively enhanced by a stellar supporting cast featuring the likes of Anne Hathaway is Robert’s wife Sarah, Bill Camp as the story’s initial complainant Wilbur Tennant, Bill Pullman as lawyer Harry Deitzler and Tim Robbins as head of Robert’s law firm Tom Terp. You don’t need me to tell you that all of these folks know what they’re doing. There is a particular pleasure that you get from watching a film filled with excellent actors, it’s the knowledge of knowing that you are in safe hands.
All in all, Dark Waters is a solid legal drama that benefits hugely from an emotive plot and a brilliant cast. Is it hard hitting or revolutionary enough to be considered an all time great in its crowded sub-genre? Probably not when you really dissect it, but that doesn’t stop it from being a rewarding and cathartic watch in real time. Shout out to director Todd Haynes who from Far From Heaven to I’m Not There to Carol to Wonderstuck to this, is refusing to be pigeon holed!