‘Dark Waters’ is Mark Ruffalo’s Finest Hour

There’s a part in Spotlight where Mark Ruffalo, in a do-or-die moment of the film’s story, lets loose a loud, dramatic monologue yelling at Michael Keaton in an unintentionally hilarious fashion about how they can’t let these priests keep getting away with their crimes. Mark Ruffalo is a great actor (duh, I wouldn’t write this article otherwise) and Spotlight is otherwise a very good film. But this scene illustrates a flaw many films based on true stories and scandals run into. They tell you to feel outraged instead of trusting you to come to that conclusion on your own. You just roll your eyes at it. Spotlight is told in a very even-handed way of understanding the painstaking process of uncovering corruption, and is intelligently made, and then out of nowhere shoves in a scene like Ruffalo’s to try to get Oscar votes, and they succeeded as it won best picture at the Oscars so congrats to them. But that scene doesn’t belong in this film, it’s just out of character. My buddy Huston and I are constantly yelling “IT’S TIME ROBBY!!!!!” at each other as a joke. I’m not trying to trash Spotlight, it’s a very good film with a very bad scene. Where am I going with this? I say all that to say this: let me tell you about another Ruffalo film, Dark Waters, that has similarities and damn near perfects this kind of film, and may just house the greatest performance of Ruffalo’s career.

Released last year and directed by Todd Haynes, Dark Waters is based on the true decades-long environmental lawsuit by corporate defense attorney Rob Bilott after he discovers the deliberately neglectful decades-long poisoning of a West Virginia community by chemical company DuPont. 

Where to begin with Ruffalo’s work? Let’s start with his accent. His whole performance revolves around it. The way his character hides and reveals his rural West Virginia accent tells you the most personal details about Bilott and what drives him. His guilt, his shame, his drive – the constant war he wages on himself about his upbringing versus his career – is all there in which interactions he chooses to let his accent creep back in. It’s a tremendous, layered balancing act that you barely notice with Ruffalo’s skill. It is revelatory and awe-inspiring work. 

Every film like this has a scene where a character breaks down the whole process of the corruption and crime that they’ve uncovered to the audience. There aren’t many that can be better than the scene in Dark Waters. Not only is the sequence well edited, cross-cutting between two different “explanations” from Ruffalo to different characters, but the whole thing is successful because of Ruffalo. He has an innate ability to emotionally connect us with processes we don’t understand. There is a kindness in him that does a lot of heavy lifting in getting the audience involved. Think about how much talking and explaining he does to the audience throughout Zodiac and yet we never feel talked down to or bogged down in information. In Spotlight he does the same thing, wrapping it all up in a bow for us to emotionally connect with what’s happening just as much as we intellectually connect with what’s happening. I saw a tweet one time that said something like “Any movie where Mark Ruffalo investigates something is a great movie” and it always cracks me up to think about it because it’s true. Dude is 3/3 on those. But anyways, his explanation scene – you are just as horrified and shaken as he is and all Ruffalo has to do is show up to get you to that place with his character. That is his gift as an actor, his inherent goodness and empathy. Dark Waters makes tremendous use of it. 

To that end, every instance of outrage from Ruffalo and others – every “IT’S TIME ROBBY!!!!” scene – feels natural and justified. Even when Tim Robbins is shouting at the law partners that they should want to take this case against DuPont because it’s the right thing to do feels right in place despite the inherent cheesiness of such a scene. Another scene finds Ruffalo stopping his car and just starts yelling to his wife and the universe that it’s evil what DuPont is doing. It feels authentic, and you’re just glad another character is voicing what you’re feeling. You’ve been sitting in tension and fury and are glad for that release of righteous anger. That’s the difference between Spotlight and this film, Spotlight tells you to be mad where Dark Waters finds voice for your anger. This does not happen without Ruffalo. The moment the whole conspiracy clicks for Bilott causes him to jump back in horror. We end up doing the same without really knowing what we’re jumping at. That is the power of Ruffalo, to communicate emotionally what we need to know without having to say it. It also helps that Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman masterfully shoot this film like an Exorcist-level dread of a horror film. 

Focus Features didn’t do much advertising for it, nor did they push it in awards circles. I’m part of the problem, I didn’t see it in theaters and didn’t watch it until about 2 weeks ago when I rented it. I was a fool for missing this in theaters and whiffing on the opportunity to praise it at the time. Were I to redo my favorites of last year, Dark Waters would be added as a revision. I would also consider it one of the best made films of last year as well. 

We’re going to look back in like 5 years and feel like absolute idiots for not just recognizing how great this film is, but for not realizing at the time that we were witnessing perhaps the greatest Mark Ruffalo performance to date. And hey, maybe we’ll be outraged about DuPont’s decades of willful neglect and poisoning pretty much every human being with Teflon by then too. It’s time, Robby. It’s time.

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