Mark Ruffalo has form for political thrillers. A few years ago, he starred in the brilliant Spotlight a film about a group of journalists who uncovered the extent of child abuse within the Catholic Church in America, which won Best Picture at the Oscars. Now he’s uncovering a whole new mystery, although he’s changed jobs from journalists to lawyer, it’s still a typically American scandal.
The reason I draw attention to Spotlight so early on, is that at times it feels like this film wants to be seen as an equal to that film, or spiritual successor, and at times, it succeeds.
So, let’s set the stage. Mark Ruffalo plays Robert Bilott, a corporate defence attorney for multiple chemical companies, who, when approached by a family friend back in his small town, goes through a revelatory change of character, and starts digging for evidence of a shocking cover-up by iconic American company DuPont.
While chemical companies and water poisoning doesn’t sound like the most exciting start for a film, it quickly engages you with its central intrigue, that being: what on Earth are DuPont putting in the water?
The film is based off a real case, with Ruffalo portraying the real-life lawyer who still to this day, is fighting cases for people unknowingly poisoned and endangered by the company dumping chemicals near or in the towns water supply, and some of the films revelations are truly frightening, these are the reasons the film is must-see, just to see the lengths companies will go to just to cover their tracks.
I won’t delve too deeply into the ins-and-outs, for fear of spoiling the film, but suffice to say there is a lot of turns packed into the film, maybe even too much, it’s a two-hour film that feels significantly longer, the slow pace and drip-feed of discoveries keeps the plot rolling along at a steady speed, but it does start to feel like we’re being shown more than perhaps what is necessary to maximise the films potential.
Ruffalo also serves as the films producer, and you can really tell it’s a project he was passionate about. His performance once again reminds me of Spotlight, in a good way, he is an incredibly engaging actor when given material he cares about, and if his outspoken views on environmentalism are anything to go by, this was a project he grasped with both hands.
He builds a complex character here, going from defending the chemical companies to taking them on directly is one hell of a character change, but he never feels like a character without morals, just a character whose circumstances lead him to being in this position; he’s a quiet character, but with a driven personality, he can come across as meek at times, but strong-willed once he starts uncovering more and more of DuPont’s seedy underbelly, the more he wants to take them down.
He is surrounded by other capable talents also, Anne Hathaway plays his wife, a woman whose patience is tested the deeper her husband delves into this case, because of the time spent away from them, her frustration is justified, and her emotions are highly believable, it’s a great compliment to the central character to be surrounded by characters who also have depth, like his wife, or his boss Tom, played by Tim Robbins, they all create a nicely fleshed-out world for Ruffalo’s character to thrive.
Direction-wise, it is very smart in squeezing every last bit of tension from a narrative that on paper might seem dry, manipulating the film into something resembling a political thriller, with the characters looking over their shoulder for perceived threats; it uses the tools it has to hand to their maximum potential, and for this it deserves applause.
Its run-time and sometimes bloated pace can drag it down in parts, but it still remains intriguing, and very watchable. An unexpectedly tense thriller with a collection of great performances make Dark Waters an enjoyable enough time for fans of thriller with a political tinge to them, it’ll certainly make you think twice about drinking tap water.