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Review: Dark Waters (2019)

By John Finnegan |

Mark Ruffalo is quickly building an impressive portfolio of work which sheds light on social problems (see Spotlight) and gives a voice to the unsung heroes of our society. Dark Waters, which is produced by Ruffalo, picks up the gauntlet left behind by Spotlight and in some ways, it succeeds in living up to Spotlight's reputation as well.

Dark Waters follows a successful lawyer, Rob Bilott, who steps out of his comfort zone to investigate the Dupont Chemical Company and their brazen disregard for human life. Facing resistance from the company and his own firm, Bilott perseveres to bring this negligence to light.

On the surface, it sounds like it should be a riveting investigative thriller but the film suffers from a common issue in cinema; it's trying to answer a question that the audience already knows the answer to.

In this case, Bilott spends most of the film trying to get to the heart of what's going on in a local Ohio community. Around the halfway mark he has a revelation - they've contaminated the water supply - the problem here is that we already know that. The film is called Dark Waters after all. It isn't until the third act that the story takes an unexpected turn and as intriguing as it is, we shouldn't be waiting so late for this stuff to come into play.

But that isn't to say it's an unengaging film. In fact, I found myself glued throughout because of the sheer horror of what this corporation is being accused of by Bilott. We are privy to genuinely disturbing images of animals dying on their legs, children whose teeth are black from contamination, unnerving scenes of intimidation and incredible loss of life that would alarm even the most sceptical viewer.

But that drama and suspense rarely come from true cinematic storytelling, that is, using a combination of visual and audio storytelling techniques. Instead, much of the information comes from Ruffalo reacting to safety reports and repeating the significance to his wife, played by Anne Hathaway, or his firm's managing partner, Tim Robbins. That wouldn't be such a bad thing, except this tends to drag on for the full two-hour running time of the story. At times I felt this would have made for an Oscar-winning documentary instead of a dramatic film.

Ruffalo is a great orator. This is evident in many of his interviews where he speaks passionately about the subjects he believes in, but also in films like Spotlight where you, at times, feel he's got some genuine connection to these horrible subjects that his character is investigating. I wouldn't want any other actor playing the role of Rob Bilott in this film, but I do wish Haynes and his screenwriter had found a more visually dramatic means of communicating some of this information to us.

The most dramatic element of this story for me was the factual revelations about how the contamination from this company was affecting people's lives around the world. Alas, this is something that could also have been achieved through a documentary so I was left wanting again. There are some very tense moments, such as the scene when Ruffalo hesitates before putting his key into the car ignition for fear that it might explode. But, as good as this scene is, on reflection, it was never obviously going to go that way because - well, where would we be without our hero?

I've heard a lot of comparisons being made with Spotlight and that is a fair one. In many ways, this feels like a spiritual sequel. And I will say that Dark Waters has a more compelling 'case'. But I will also say that Spotlight is a better work of cinema. However, if Ruffalo's goal is to raise awareness for this kind of corporate corruption and criminal activity, he has done his job and then some. Not 24 hours after coming away from the film, I poured myself a glass of water and thought twice before taking a drink. Forget Jaws, this is the movie that will keep you out of the water.

If there is something to be learned from how this film was constructed, it's that casting is so important. Knowing what we know about actors (thanks to social media), it's safe to say we project those qualities onto the characters that they play. Ruffalo's activism makes him the only real A-Lister that could have taken on this role and as a producer, he gives the film credibility that will help it stand the test of time.

However, from a screenwriting perspective, the film could pull back on the extent with which it lectures its audience on something that we already know about and accepts to be bad. Instead, give us (as an example) a deep dive into the mechanisms that allow such blatant disregard of life to happen. Show me that this is not just an isolated situation.

Dark Waters is an important film and it's been made with a real passion for the subject matter. While at times it can feel predictable and too familiar, it's also full of wider questions, which, even if they don't get answered, leave the viewer thinking on the subject long after the credits roll.

(Image credits: Participant Media)


The founder of The Script Department, John Finnegan is also Senior Lecturer in screenwriting at Falmouth University. Find him @johnfinnegan247


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