When Mark Ruffalo and the rest of the cinematic Spotlight team took on the Catholic Church, he didn’t so much as touch a nerve as dig his heel into one. Dark Waters sees him put the boot to another major power, this time going solo in a story that’s just as important and happens to concern every single being on the planet. With consequences as big as that, it would make sense to get an Avenger involved, but instead the man behind the big green machine gives us a grounded and solid performance in a movie that needs to sit in the required viewing list for just about everyone.
Spanning almost two decades, Dark Waters sees Ruffalo as cooperate lawyer, Robert Bilott, have his world of covering the backs of big companies interrupted by a small town farmer who is close to ruin, believing big brand chemical company, DuPont to be the culprit. Heading down to Wilbur Tennant’s farm (played with just the right amount of grump by Bill Camp), Bilott begins to dig deeper, learning that Tennant may be on to something that stretches further than his own land, but also the surrounding town of Parkersburg, that are currently caught in the grip of company that knows more than they’re letting on.
It blows with an unsettling breeze similar to HBO’s Chernobyl.
Interestingly where Ruffalo’s aforementioned award-winning drama avoided the cliches of the journalistic world it was a part of, so too does Dark Waters evade being a typical court procedural of the lawyer fighting for the little guy. Instead, Bilott becomes the fly in DuPont’s toxic ointment, piecing together statements, and having so many close-ups on documents you’re at risk of getting a paper cut. He plays Bilott like a detective, getting up the backs of former business associates that are quick to cut ties or dodge him at social gatherings, and delving deeper into DuPont’s shocking past with Tim Robbins reminding you how great he is, as the superior trying to rein him in. For Ruffalo, it’s the screen test for the best Columbo reboot we never had.
These discoveries also mark what is the most compelling element to Dark Waters and a credit to director Todd Haynes. With every revelation Bilott regrettably makes, the story unfolds almost like a horror, as the detail in just how much damage this faceless cooperate titan has done comes to light. It blows with an unsettling breeze similar to HBO’s Chernobyl, with one standout scene being Bilott draw out all of DuPont’s skeleton’s from the closet as if telling a ghost story. Ruffalo is reserved throughout, only occasionally letting slip the stress that befell a man who had every opportunity to ignore what was happening and didn’t. The only minor setback in the ordeal is demonstrating how time took its toll on him.
One core element that can’t be ignored in Bilott’s story is just how long he spent nipping at the heels of DuPont after Tennant walked into his office. The apparent struggle that presents itself, is in transferring that to screen. Plenty of films about obsession with justice and the time spent chasing it have had the same issue and succeeded (Zero Dark Thirty and Ruffalo’s other modern classic Zodiac being fine examples). Here it feels like a grating setback that could have been utilised in a far better way. Instead, we only have the age of Bilott’s children and the ever-changing hairstyles of a grossly underused Anne Hathaway as his wife, Sarah, to show that time is not on his side. Thankfully, this is but a drop in the ocean for a film that is determined to deliver a message doing so with unflinching honesty and a frontman that is riding the waves with ease. Dark Waters may not be another Spotlight for Ruffalo, but it certainly deserves one.