“A tenacious lawyer takes on a case involving a major company responsible for causing several people to be diagnosed with leukemia due to the town’s water supply being contaminated, at the risk of bankrupting his firm and career.”
You’d be completely justified in thinking this IMDb plot description was for Dark Waters, Todd Haynes’ new legal drama starring Mark Ruffalo, but it’s actually from a 1998 film called A Civil Action. This uncanny resemblance will likely be lost on most people, as even those who watched A Civil Action have long forgotten about it, but for some reason the John Travolta water-contamination-lawsuit drama stuck in my mind. Most likely because I saw it when I was very young, during my formative film years. I’d love to claim that I was eager to see Steve Zaillian’s directorial follow-up to Searching for Bobby Fischer, a stellar film I love as much now as I did back then, but I admit I wasn’t quite that precocious. Anyway, all of this is somehow more interesting than Haynes’ latest film which wastes the immense talent of Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, and Bill Pullman.
Ruffalo plays Robert Bilott, a (not so tenacious) lawyer who works at a law firm that defends corporations. One day he’s approached by a farmer who wants him to look into the strange circumstances that has led to the death of nearly all of his cows. He initially brushes the man off, but is eventually convinced by his grandma (who he repeatedly refers to as “Grammers” in a notably awkward, yet endearing idiosyncrasy I assume Haynes and/or Ruffalo pushed for) who led the farmer to him. He eventually ties the town’s wave of sickness to DuPont, a massive corporation, and the film follows his efforts to build a case against this industrial juggernaut, seeking justice for the townsfolk of the small town near where he grew up.
If that plot sounds like a typical unexciting Grisham-knock off, then I’ve properly set the table. The major differentiator here is the environmental angle, which doesn’t add anything particularly interesting, but allows for the nagging call-to-arms subtext to rise to the surface by the end. Ruffalo’s involvement as a producer isn’t surprising considering how devoted he is to political activism – Dark Waters is essentially a merging of his overt personal politics with his exaggerated performance from Spotlight. Lines like “they knew” and “the whole world needs to know” are ripped straight from the 2015 Academy Award-winner, but repeated with a disingenuous indignation that rings false and feels like thin pleading.
The cast isn’t bad per se, though Bill Camp goes wildly overboard with his down-home but animated farmer act. Haynes is first and foremost a magician at directing actors, with the performances usually being standouts in his films. So it’s even more perplexing that strong talent like Hathaway, Robbins, and Pullman are all serviceable at best here. It’s almost as if Haynes has checked out entirely and the passion behind the film rests solely on Ruffalo’s shoulders. Aside from a few striking, effective moments, the filmmaking is uninspired. Haynes basically turns on auto-pilot and ends up with easily his most undistinguished film.
We get the typical hits. Bilott eventually loses himself in his work and ostracizes himself from his family, as all leading men have done in films like this for decades, erupting in an emotionally charged scene between Ruffalo and Hathaway where he gives one of many impassioned speeches about the good he’s doing. And of course, in another scene he’s so incensed that he works himself up to the point where his child starts crying in the backseat. There are the classic eye-rolling speeches about the evil of big corporations and the perseverance and unshakable will of the American people.
The most exciting sequence in Dark Waters is where Bilott walks quickly through an empty parking garage, paranoid that he’s being followed. He notices a shadowy figure in the distance and runs to his car. When he gets inside, he’s terrified to turn the key, fearing his car may be turned into a bomb. It does not figure into the rest of the film whatsoever, and likely only exists to be featured, nearly in its entirety, in the trailer, making the film seem more like a thriller. It’s dispiriting that the most engaging moment is a tonally incongruous scene that feels ripped from an entirely different movie.
It’s been 20 years since I’ve seen A Civil Action, so I can’t completely endorse it as the better lawyer-takes-on-water-contaminating-corporation legal drama, but I jumped the gun in describing The Report as “a film that’s already been made a decade ago,” because Dark Waters essentially has been made two decades ago. The incredible talent wasted here is far more egregious though.
C Review 2019 a civil action academy awards anne hathaway bill camp bill pullman c dark waters john grisham mark ruffalo searching for bobby fischer spotlight steve zaillian the report tim robbins todd haynes