The legal procedural is something film goers have had no qualms devouring for years now, be it Julia Roberts' push-up bra in Erin Brockovich or George Clooney's crisis of conscience in Michael Clayton. The latest entrant into this genre features an ensemble with talented leading names, though ones whose political ideology tends to speak for themselves.
Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom) adapted the Nathaniel Rich New York Times Magazine article into a screenplay that Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven) directed. Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher) plays Rob Bilott, a law associate at a firm representing corporations. He is given evidence of poisoning of the land and water from Wilbur (Bill Camp, Joker), a friend of Rob's grandmother in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and Rob learns that there is a lot of evidence that the multibillion dollar DuPont industry has been polluting the people of Parkersburg, and potentially much more. He decides to fight them tooth and nail to determine what the truth is and what he can do to stop them.
I think when it comes to an oversaturated film genre, you still have to put some work in. Which is to say when Leighton Meester and Miles Teller eventually get together at the end of the romcom you're watching, they'd have at least put in some roadwork to get to that point, thus making their third act resolution all the more joyful because the viewer has had some investment of time and energy for it. Dark Waters takes a lot of those steps and uses them as inference. Which would generally be fine, but it also glosses over steps in storytelling that could have made things more relatable to the viewer. In the extras, the cast talks about Rob being a private and/or quiet person in real life and that tracks here, as Ruffalo plays a guy who is generally stoic and shuts a lot of people out. His wife Sarah is played by Anne Hathaway (Colossal), whose work in the film is neglected and basically shortchanging her acting abilities. It almost made me wonder if she did it for the work with others in the film or the message itself, the latter of which being not all that hot.
In addition, fundamentally the story also has problems as well. Wilbur's case, which extends into Rob's actions against DuPont, last years, even decades, but the cuts to things to serve as time markers in the film are afterthoughts, because Rob's investment in these appear to be afterthoughts (save for an occasional argument with Sarah. Even debates with the law firm Managing Partner he works for (Tim Robbins, Mystic River) come off as derivate. With something that is apparently so serious, you'd expect a little more than what the ensemble of Dark Waters delivers.
Aside from the individual work of Camp (an underrated actor for a few years now in my opinion), The ensemble wants you to know that the DuPont actions are underhanded, but doesn't go nearly enough as to why. Whether it's from a transformation of Rob's value system, or even keeping the viewer involved as to his pursuit of justice or the truth, there's an overwhelming personal sense that Dark Waters wants to keep you at arms' length about, well, everything, and doesn't want to explain why that is, and it's a shame
A lot of grays, blacks and blues serve as the palette for Dark Waters and the AVC-encoded high-definition presentation shows them vividly. Subdued law firm lighting comes through naturally and image detail in skin and hair is sharp without noticeable artifacts. The film comes across natural, sharp and vivid without any image post-processing, and looks as good as can be.
The DTS-HD track does not get a lot to do, but does show off on more dynamic moments like a rebellious cow charging its owner. But environmental noise sounds clear and convincing and gives you a sense of immersion when listening to it. Dialogue sounds clear and well-balanced in the center channel and does not require any adjustments from the user, and the playing of Johnny Cash's cover of "I Won't Back Down" pierces out with struck guitar strings, sounding broad and powerful.
Three extras, all brief, starting with "Uncovering Dark Waters" (5:28), the closest thing the film lhas to a making of about it, as the cast and crew discuss how the story got together, how Haynes works as a director and the set and location goals for the production. "The Cost of Being a Hero" (5:01) includes some works from the cast and crew about Bilott, while "The Real People" (2:28) shows us the Parkersburg folks, some of whom make the film. There's a standard definition disc and digital copy of the film for good measure.
In Dark Waters you have another entry into the legal thriller/procedural genre, but between the distance of the cast and detachment of the material, there isn't a long-lasting hint of resonance that other films of the genre possesses. Do you know what happened in Erin Brockovich? Yes? What about the end? OK. Now do this for Dark Waters, and you would be in for a more difficult hill to climb, and that is the big flaw of the film. Technically, the disc looks and sounds great, and the extras are scant, and could have used more work. It is worth checking out for the performances of Ruffalo and (to a much greater degree) Camp, but at the end of the day, you are liable to forget about this pretty quickly, as it is a disappointment.