Saturday, 29 February 2020

Review: Dark Waters

Dark Waters
Cert: 12A / 127 mins / Dir. Todd Haynes / Trailer

Interesting sidetrack on the excellent Sciptnotes podcast recently, where it was discussed that production companies routinely buy the rights not only to news stories but also magazine articles about news stories. And it's not that these are tales of real-life angst just yearning for the big screen treatment and a wider audience, more that their leading actors enjoy the earnest, awards-bait frowning, and the films themselves routinely make modest but reliable amounts of money. A reminder that commerce will always beat art in these times.

And I only mention all this because it's like a tonal template for Todd Haynes' Dark Waters, a hand-wringing political thriller about that time DuPont poisoned an entire town for forty years. Mark Ruffalo leads as the underdog lawyer*1 trying to take on The Man™ in a story which begins in 1998 then spans eighteen years, and boy do the audience feel every single one of them*2. That said, if your movie regularly has to caption-card that it's a year later because nothing of narrative note has happened in the intervening months, this may be a sign that it'd make a better documentary (although in one photo-heavy recap, it basically turns into one anyway).

Whether or not the audience is familiar with the source material, there are absolutely no surprises here. Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan wrangle the legal saga into the most rudimentary screenplay imaginable, less of a crafted story and more a list of events in chronological order. With sincerity doubling up for intrigue, there's no doubt Dark Waters' heart is in the right place, but the end result is very nuts-and-bolts. Because so much of the film takes place at boardroom and kitchen tables, there's an awful lot of telling-not-showing going on. Even when the film does opt to show, the action is so On The Nose that it could pass for a pair of pince-nez.

To be fair, Dark Waters isn't exactly the film the trailer makes it out to be. It's somehow even more so. Act I tells us that the town may be being poisoned, Act II tells us that they are and Act III tells us that they were. All with a colour palette so desaturated that I was about to go out into the foyer and complain that the red bulb had packed up in the projector.

If the real message here is that many people give up on lengthy litigation dramas because death just seems like an easier option, then well done.

Dear The Film Industry,
Please stop making direct-port films from magazine articles*3.
We already have the news.
We go to the cinema to get away from all that.

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Why not make this a nice fun-free triple-bill with Richard Jewell and Miss Sloane?

(because you know if Ruffalo's character had been female then Jessica Chastain would have been cast in this)

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
It is not.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
If you've got this far through the review, you're either definitely going to anyway or are definitely not.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Absolutely not.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
That's very likely.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: Mark Ruffalo has been in all manner of Avengers movies with, among others, Sam 'Windu' Jackson.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 In one scene, Tim Robbins hilariously puts forward the notion that lawyers are actually the good guys in this crazy world of ours, and I'll be honest I don't laugh that hard in most comedies that I watch, so fair play. [ BACK ]

*2 In a sort of cinematic Dorian Gray twist, the actors barely age at all on-screen while the audience feel themselves growing older instead. Putting more grey in Ruffalo's hair and changing Anne Hathaway's wig doesn't count. [ BACK ]

*3 Not you, Marielle Heller. You are gloriously exempt from this request. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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