Sometimes there is a movie that is so good and the subject matter just right, that you walk out feeling inspired and hopeful. Other times, a movie is so bad that you hate the world for allowing you to waste your time. Then, a movie like Dark Waters (2019) shows up, and is very compelling and put together in a way that makes research entertaining – but leaves you with barely a shred of hope, and information that you probably would have been happier not knowing. I’m glad that movies like this exist…but they can really sour someone’s day.
Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is a corporate lawyer, but after Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer from his grandmother’s home town in West Virginia shows up at his office claiming Dupont has poisoned the water his cows drink from, Robert is compelled to investigate against the type of entity he usually represents. Robert puts many things on the line during this investigation, including friendships, his career, and his own family in his search for what he believes is right.
Ruffalo may be the best actor at making research look visually compelling. Of course, there is more to this than just his performance, like the editing, cinematography, and set design certainly impact the feel of these scenes. Still…between this film and Spotlight (2015), Ruffalo has been the centerpiece of two of the tensest research sequences I can recall ever watching (and not wanting to skip over). Thus, I put out the idea that it is, in fact, his pain-stained face and eyes that really emphasize the intensity of the moment. He is excellent at really showing what he is feeling in any given scene – so, in movies like this where emotion could often be spoken – Ruffalo shows it in his slouched posture and strained facial muscles. In other words, it is hard to imagine anyone else doing this role justice.
There are other solid performances in this film including Anne Hathaway as Sarah, Robert’s often angry wife. She takes a backseat for most of this movie, but she is given some Oscar moments – especially the really emotional monologue she delivers late in the film. Tim Robbins was solid, and his character a pleasant surprise throughout the tough story. Bill Pullman shows up and overacts a little – but he mostly works in the few scenes that he is given. However, the clear emotion-getting supporting actor is Bill Camp. He gets some of the best scenes and puts on one hell of a performance.
The downside of Dark Waters is that it is based on a true story that hasn’t totally ended yet. It is the little guy up against the big corporation; an issue that feels far too challenging and real in the current political climate. For every little fire Robert puts out – initially for Wilbur, and then others – there is always a bigger fire burning just out of sight. The helplessness the characters feel is easily experienced by the audience, as information reminds us that not only is this real – but this is but one company that puts profit above humanity. It was hard walking out of the theater and not feeling completely hopeless.
Dark Waters is definitely worth everyone’s time to see. As a film, it is a compelling narrative that moves well and has some very good performances. As a piece of information, it is content that we all should be aware of, even if we really would rather follow Cypher’s revelation in the Matrix: “Ignorance is bliss.” Dark Waters earns the Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy rating.