REVIEW: ‘Dark Waters’ is a compelling journey into the depths of corporate greed

Actor Mark Ruffalo trades in his green look for a nice suit in his latest film.

In “Dark Waters,” Ruffalo plays Robert Bilott, a corporate defense attorney who works at an office in Cincinnati. At the movie’s beginning, Bilott and the firm he works for has established a solid working relationship with the DuPont company. That good working relationship begins to strain, though, when Bilott meets with a farmer in West Virginia, based on a referral from a family member, and uncovers an environmental disaster threatening livestock.

Upon the discovery, Bilott launches a case against the DuPont company with the hope that he can win a lawsuit and help the farmer, Wilbur (Bill Camp). However, the lawyer uncovers more and more details about DuPont’s “forever” chemicals and learns that the environmental disaster is much worse than initially thought.

As someone who’s reported on chemicals that don’t break down, “Dark Waters” really hits home and shines a spotlight on a huge issue that most of the United States is currently, or is going to be, dealing with. The way it shines that spotlight is in a fairly standard court drama, that takes an audience through the case from its start to the current day.

While the movie’s plot is fairly common, though, it still works quite well. One reason for its success is how the mystery unravels, where and audience joins Bilott in learning just how deep the rabbit hole goes. The development of the case, Bilott becoming less on the side of corporations and how more and more secrets are revealed makes for a rather interesting piece of cinema.

The film additionally benefits from solid pacing. The movie shows that the case, unfortunately, lasted for well over a decade. Despite lasting for such a long time, though, it doesn’t feel like a never-ending picture or an exhausting effort. An audience empathizes with Bilott’s exhaustion, sure, but the film never feels like it’s running too long, despite the constant appeals and legal moves DuPont takes.

Courtesy Focus Features

What doesn’t help the movie, though, is how it glosses over a few of Bilott’s colleagues. Bilott, of course, deserves a heaping amount of credit for the work he did in fighting for the environment. However, there were others, such as Bill Pullman’s Harry Dietzler character. Dietzler is a class action lawyer, and he has a few moments, but is mostly sidelined unfortunately. Some more insight into the other attorneys who helped Bilott would’ve been appreciated.

The portrayal of Bilott’s family life also feels a bit underwritten here. Anne Hathaway is a talented, Oscar-winning actress, but the material she’s given here isn’t the strongest and her performance feels a bit forgettable.

When it comes to the main character, though, Ruffalo knocks it out of the park. I wouldn’t say I liked him here more than, say, “Spotlight” or “Zodiac,” but his performance is still really good.

What really works about Ruffalo is how down-to-Earth he plays the character. For example, at the start of the movie, he doesn’t portray the character as too much of a greedy, uncaring lawyer. The character is a guy who’s really tied by the system and he’s doing the best he can with it, and Ruffalo really gets this across.

While he doesn’t get as much time, Pullman is also solid in his portrayal. Nearly stealing scenes from Ruffalo, though, is Camp. His character has such a tragic story, and Camp brings the melancholy state of the person he’s portraying to the screen well. It’s a heartbreaking performance, and is one of the better supporting works this year.

Praise also has to go to Edward Lachman, the film’s cinematographer. The movie is shot rather well, and the use of lighting and color is great. Lachman pulls no punches in getting across the sad state of affairs the film takes place in. The movie looks bleak, and it sets the mood in terms of the damage that’s been done.

Director Todd Haynes crafted a fine picture. There are some powerful moments in this movie, such as a sequence where Ruffalo’s character is bringing to light all the evidence to the face of the company’s higher-ups, and it’s scenes like this that really makes it worth seeing. 4.25 out of 5.


Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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