Cara Jones got married in an Olympic stadium alongside thousands of other grooms in suits and brides in wedding dresses, and that mass ritual — presided over by Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the self-appointed “True Father” of his own Unification Church — is exactly what Jones had imagined for herself ever since she was a little girl. And while that approach might have taken the stress out of wedding planning, it came with some unique challenges of its own: Jones wasn't allowed to meet her husband until a month before the ceremony, when Moon himself assigned the couple to each other by pulling their photos from a stack of 8x10s; also, Jones had never been free to consider marrying someone for love, and not as part of one man's grandiose scheme to “make the whole world a family” and reap millions of dollars along the way.
Jones grew up in the Unification Church whose members are often referred to as “Moonies”, and she didn't leave it all behind until she was well into her 20s. Her parents are still members — her siblings are not. They're still a family. Needless to say, the process of disentangling herself from this part of her personal history has not been easy for her, and there's a reason why the intimate documentary she's made about that fraught, ongoing process is far more tempered and bittersweet than most other films about “cults” and their clutches. Here, the cult was literally her own mom and dad.
“Blessed Child” doesn't really dig into the story of how she left the Unification Church, as the film opts against a straightforward personal history in favor of a more kaleidoscopic approach that allows Jones to present her life as a work in progress. Her movie feels much the same way. It skitters through the years, and from one focus to another, with the ramshackle urgency of a therapy session; a scene where Jones injects herself with fertility drugs in the present day is shortly followed by a crash course on the Moonies and on-the-street interviews with ex-members who seldom show up again.
The very first shots find Jones putting on her makeup as she prepares to tell her story at The Moth and asks her cameraman — who we later find out is also her very endearing brother — some basic directing questions that undermine our faith in the film to come. There's a bit too much honesty in that “Blessed Child” is Jones' debut feature, and its darts-at-the-wall structure often suggests as much, but that unabashed messiness is also the movie's greatest strength: This isn't a black-and-white tale of religious indoctrination, and Jones immediately disabuses us from assigning blame. To see how uncertain she is about her own healing process is to recognize that we don't have the right to define it for her.
Jones' parents naturally emerge as major figures in this story, even if the filmmaker — like so many of us — struggles to envision who they were before she was born. One shot of her dad making a breakfast smoothie in his modest Hawaii home is all it takes to demystify the life of a Moonie, and her mom radiates a similar feeling of measured calm. We learn that Mr. Jones has always been considered the family Buddha; no one could get mad at someone with such a sweet demeanor, even as his constant search for spiritual contentment prevented the family from settling into the middle-class ideal they seemed to typify from the outside. Jones' mom seems less dedicated to the Church, but she harbors a darkness that's too painful for the filmmaker to broach for more than a few seconds. The candid, we're-all-in-this-together vibe that Jones so clearly shares with her siblings is gone whenever she visits with mom and dad, replaced instead by a fragile layer of wet ice that nobody wants to fall through. “Even though I'm a 42-year-old woman, I'm still afraid of disappointing my parents,” Jones confesses to the camera.
She’s also afraid of reckoning with the ways that her parents might have disappointed her. While the film never discourages us from rolling our eyes at Moon's charlatan behavior, or the mass weddings for which he became famous, “Blessed Child” has no interest in throwing the Unification Church under the bus. Unconventional as the Church's practices may have been, most of Moon's teachings didn't stray too far afield from typical Christian doctrine. You just to believe that Jesus came to Moon when he was 15 and told him to carry out the work of Christ by parenting the entire human population.
And sure, why not? As one ex-Moonie puts it: “All people who get caught up in mass religions are crazy — read Revelations, it's crazier than 'Harry Potter!'” Besides, these were just the facts of life that Jones was taught at a child, and there's no use gawking at how absurd they might sound to her as an adult. The movie doesn't ignore that Moon committed tax fraud, or was just a profiteer in a prophet's clothing, but that stuff just isn't especially relevant to Jones' residual conflict.
The one piece of Moonie theology that still matters to her is the idea that making the world into a single family required Moon's disciples to sacrifice the families they already had. But how do you heal the world by harming the people for whom you're directly responsible? It's a direct contradiction that Jones' parents have never attempted to reconcile, and the trauma that resulted from that friction is most clearly expressed through Jones' cameraman brother Bow, who to this day is still tortured by the homosexuality that several long church retreats once failed to “cure.” Jones and her siblings share a clear and completely understandable resentment over the realization that it was easier for their parents to turn their backs on the family than it will ever be for their family to turn their backs on them.
The more directly that “Blessed Child” confronts that idea, the better the film leverages and transcends its bizarre context in order to get at the human element that holds all families together — nuclear or religious. The film's various asides such as Jones' interviews with current Moonies about to participate in their own mass weddings are all tender and engrossing in their own ways, but the documentary fails to put its various elements in dialogue with one another. It spreads itself too wide and too shallow, and leaves us wishing that we might have seen more of the journey that has come to define Jones' adult life: The path to starting a family of her own.
“Blessed Child” premiered at DOC NYC 2019. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
Brighton Sharbino and Dominic Monaghan try to get safety after massive blackout in Ben McPherson's survival story.
Set in the tense hours between a calamity and the societal breakdown it'll almost certainly cause, Ben McPherson's Radioflash begins as a visually rich, calmly serious take on apocalypse drama. It shifts by increments, eventually focusing on woman-in-peril material starring Brighton Sharbino an old hand at end-of-the-world fiction after her childhood stint on The Walking Dead and, perhaps unwisely, indulging a Hicksploitation leaning. While the latter theme clashes with its initial realism, the feature debut is more substantial than many survival tales like it, and should get a small commercial bump from the presence of Dominic Monaghan as the heroine's father and Will Patton as her granddad.
The opening scene, an elaborate and expensive-looking escape room action sequence, is something of a non-sequitur, demonstrating the resourcefulness of teenage hero Reese Sharbino but also introducing tech-virtuoso themes that won't lead anywhere. Back home with her widowed father Chris Monaghan, Reese is sounding like a computer prodigy when suddenly, any gifts in that department become useless: An electromagnetic pulse fries the electric grid and communications across her unnamed Pacific Northwest hometown. We'll soon learn the entire Western US has blacked out, surely due to an intentional attack.
Rigging a car battery up to a radio transmitter, she makes contact with her survivalist grandfather Frank Patton. This is the day Frank has lived for, and he convinces Reese and Chris to gather what gas they can and get to his house in the mountains before highways are clogged with fearful city dwellers.
It's almost too late for that. Scenes at grocery stores and on long bridges frighteningly capture incipient bedlam, suggesting it's already unwise to assume a stranger won't attack you.
While it watches father and daughter get underway, the film seems more sure of itself in its characterization of Frank. He calmly takes the steps a doomsday-prepper would save for last — like breaking into a pharmacy and taking meds that don't have an infinite shelf life. He avoids trouble with a fellow looter who's clearly seeking opioids, and leaves a note with payment for what he's taken at the register — "not that it'll be worth anything tomorrow."
The landscapes Reese and Chris drive through are beautifully photographed and usually blanketed in mist, and we interact with them much more intimately after a car wreck forces the two to travel on foot through the forest. An occasionally overwritten screenplay warns us of what they'll find in these mountains — people who are up to no good, even in normal times — and, after several more commonplace dangers, McPherson delivers on that promise.
Echoes of Deliverance and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre color the last act, in which a reclusive matriarch known only as "Ma" extends some dubious hospitality to a young woman who might keep her feral son and grandson company. In the part, Fionnula Flanagan proves you can't spell "ham" without the letters in her character's name. If the dangers tilt toward the lurid, though, the film never quite loses sight of its endpoint, or gives in to the horrors it threatens. Unsatisfyingly, it instead concludes with a tech-flavored shot that might hint at greater ambitions for what seems like a standalone adventure.
Production company: American Dream Labs Distributor: IFC Midnight Cast: Brighton Sharbino, Dominic Monaghan, Will Patton, Fionnula Flanagan, Miles Anderson, Michael Filipowich, Kyle Collin Director-Screenwriter: Ben McPherson Producers: Rocco DeVilliers, Ben McPherson, Brad Skaar, Clay Vandiver Director of photography: Austin F. Schmidt Production designer: Susannah Lowber Costume designer: Angela Hadnagy Composer: Ramin Kousha Casting director: Jeremy Zimmermann
Everything was in its seeming right place at the conclusion of Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck’s 2013 animated smash hit “Frozen,” as long-suffering princesses Anna Kristen Bell and Elsa Idina Menzel were reunited, the kingdom of Arendelle was freed from its eternal winter, Elsa was crowned queen with her magic intact and appreciated, and Anna had found love with a doofy regular dude after banishing a nefarious smooth-talking wannabe Prince Charming type. Still, fans of the Disney feature have long clamored for a sequel to the musical charmer, if only to spend more time with a cadre of cute characters including, of all things, a hammy reindeer and Josh Gad as a sentient snowman who has zero right to be as cute as he is inside an inventive new world.
Perhaps they should have been careful what they wished for, if only because it’s about to be upended by a fresh new story.
Sure, Elsa eventually ascended to the throne, leaving her self-created ice castle behind and slipping into a role that had long been carved out for her, but does that choice truly reflect who she is? And while Anna has always been happy to play second very supportive fiddle to her gifted big sis, she’s consistently seemed like the better choice to lead a kingdom and a Disney franchise to new s. Every sequel is tasked with dramatizing what happens next, but “Frozen 2” is built on a sly bit of course correction that might rile the very people who wanted it so badly. The franchise — and the fandom — are better for it.
“Frozen” may have ended with everything in its right place, but Lee and Buck’s long-awaited followup makes the case that a sequel was necessary, not because it was demanded, but because “Frozen” was never the correct end of the story. Loving the characters and themes of “Frozen” and wanting to see more of them can only naturally lead to “Frozen 2,” which does away with so many of the happily-ever-after elements of the first film and finds new, updated ones. By moving the tension between the traditional and the bold to the forefront, “Frozen 2” is one of the more daring visions of the future of Disney moviemaking, all bolstered by gorgeous animation and a handful of instant-classic new jams.
While “Frozen” used plenty of traditional plot points to guide it, including building off a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, imparting key lessons about doing the right thing, and making being part of the royal family sound like a fun gig, it was always laced through with some compelling subversion. Some moviegoers even latched on to Elsa’s alienation and desire to break free from expectations as indicative of her potential queerness - possible sexuality aside, crafting a bonafide Disney Princess who really, really didn’t want to be one is still a heck of a choice for Disney.
Picking up soon after the events of the first film, “Frozen 2” finds Elsa, Anna, Kristoff Jonathan Groff, Olaf Gad, and Sven the reindeer happily ensconced in a cheery Arendelle. And yet an early flashback to Anna and Elsa’s youth — before they were separated out of fear of Elsa’s icy powers — indicates that the seeds of this story were sown long ago. Since the first film, which offed Anna and Elsa’s parents in an off-screen shipwreck, fans have wondered about what really happened to the royal couple, another pair of loving adults lost to the whims of a studio that has always cherished the concept that parental death is key to personal growth.
“Frozen 2” gives the princesses — and the film’s audience — more time with King Runeard Jeremy Sisto and Queen Iduna Evan Rachel Wood, as they share the fantastical fairy tale of an ill-fated political meeting that nearly killed the kid king, locked a distant forest and its inhabitants in a magical mist, and inspires Elsa to go looking for answers she can’t find in Arendelle. Much that’s been guessed about the super-secret plot of “Frozen 2” has turned out to be incorrect: there is no autumnal version of Elsa, no overt same-sex romance, no secretly alive parents. That’s for the best, because the surprises that “Frozen 2” unfurls are emotional, mature, and often quite dark for a kids’ film tip: the youngest “Frozen” fans might need some warm hugs to get through a fraught final act.
As is so often the case, it starts with an unexpected journey. Early in the film, Elsa attempts to push away any thoughts about striking out into the unknown as illuminated by a song that is, of course, titled “Into the Unknown,” one of two sturdy “Let It Go” stand-ins, and muses that everyone she loves is finally under one roof, so why would she need more? For someone as magical and secretly bent on living her own life as Elsa, you can see where the discomfort might creep in.
Anna, meanwhile, is happy as a clam, embarking on zippy signalongs with best pal Olaf “Some Things Never Change” is just as fun and frisky as “Love Is an Open Door” and looking forward to whatever the future might bring. Olaf, now maturing into something of an adult snowman Was he a “snowkid” before? Best not to worry about it, is consumed by the idea that everything — including terrifying spirit-filled magical forests — will make sense when he’s older, while Kristoff just wants to put a ring on Anna’s finger.
When Elsa starts hearing an ethereal singing voice calling out to her, she’s compelled to follow it far North, and the rest of the crew can’t help but tag along, all the better to stick together and assuage Anna’s well-founded fears about losing her sister again. Of course, the journey and the voice lead straight to the distant forest, one filled with secrets and memories many of them rendered literal by magic-conjured ice sculptures, a plot point that makes much more sense in practice. There’s also a handful of new friends to meet, all of which are welcome, many of which are underserved Sterling K. Brown is the lone newbie who really gets to leave a mark.
Keen observers will likely see how this all is going to play out, as previously illuminated by Iduna’s flashback appearance, complete with its own song “All Is Found”. That doesn’t stop the film’s script, from Buck, Lee, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez, Marc Smith, and Allison Schroeder, from occasionally getting lost in the woods. Zipping between ruminations about the spirits that fill the forest it’s certainly the most pagan Disney film in recent memory to a convoluted exploration of the sins of the father no, really and a series of richly-animated and truly obvious revelations, “Frozen 2” is crammed with material, most of which works.
Despite the emotional upheaval of the final act, it also has a fair bit of amusement and spectacle. There’s tongue-in-cheek jibs about the Disney experience throughout, and Lee and Buck have some serious fun spinning the big musical numbers into fresh territory Kristoff’s big song, “Lost in the Woods,” is filmed as something of a power ballad music video, more Guns n Roses than anyone could ever expect from the Mouse House, and one of the best parts of the film. Olaf is as deranged and cute as ever, moving from court jester to something of a classic fool over the course of a transformational outing. In a flashback, Anna and Elsa’s dad even makes off with a lightning fast joke about a “new Danish author.”
It all culminates in a wild, windswept mission for Elsa, one that capitalizes on her powers and pushes them to terrifying ends. The same can be said of the film’s animation, which has mostly adhered to the style of the original, all sweet faces and the occasional burst of icy action Elsa can still make some insane snowflakes, and more, before building to an ocean-swept sequence that’s vivid, terrifying, and more eye-popping than the “Let It Go” scene in the first film. Like the film itself, it’s scary and different, but it also shows off the inherent power of moving away from expectations and embracing the drama of real life. No sequel is essential, but “Frozen 2” makes the argument that, even in the fairy tale land of Disney, they can still be important.
Disney will release “Frozen 2” in theaters on Friday, November 22.
“Some things never change,” or so go the lyrics in one of the songs in the highly anticipated Disney sequel Frozen II. This follow-up arrives six years after the worldwide phenomenon of Frozen took hold of popular culture, with its songs becoming so unavoidable and ubiquitous almost overnight. Frozen II attempts to carve out a place for itself while delivering the charm, catchy music, and core emotional underpinnings that so inflamed people’s imaginations in 2013. With its eye-popping animation, world-building, and character exploration, Frozen II is nominally a slight improvement on its predecessor. But it’s still limited by the burden of expectations.
Arendelle is thriving in the reign of Queen Elsa voiced by Idina Menzel, yet the young leader is plagued by the mysterious sound of a beckoning siren call only she can hear. Coupled with her memory of the king and queen describing for her a strange, enchanted forest in the North where magic reigned supreme, Elsa is compelled to leave her home. Unable to quell her wandering spirit, she heads off to an enchanted forest in the North, joined by her sister Anna Kristen Bell, Anna’s beau Kristoff Jonathan Groff, his reindeer Sven, and the supposedly lovable snowman Olaf Josh Gad. The core adventure is less about the sisterly bonds delved into during the 2013 original, and more about the pressing question of why Elsa is gifted with magical powers, and whether those powers might destroy or save their land.
What works most in this film’s favor is that it doesn’t present itself as a direct copy of the original. Shrewdly, Anna and Elsa are teamed up for a bulk of the story, this enabling their connection to be more believable. Now at least, Anna and Elsa act like sisters, instead of lip service being paid to their relationship. Elsa, too, may still be a figure of some mystery, but Jennifer Lee’s script she co-directed the film with Chris Buck is at its strongest when the icy queen is at the forefront. Anna, though less outlandishly klutzy than in the first film, is placed in a silly subplot with Kristoff, who’s desperate to pop the question but unable to close the deal. It’s not exactly a good thing that this film recalls the first-ever Disney animated sequel, The Rescuers Down Under, wherein the kindly male lead struggles to pop the question to his longtime girlfriend. But the similarities are…unexpected, if not straight-up unwelcome.
Of course, the vagaries of what is expected of a sequel—the same, but more of it—means that there are more songs, including two big numbers for Elsa. “Into the Unknown” has received the “Let It Go” treatment in the marketing campaign, but her other solo number, “Show Yourself”, is the standout. Groff, like Menzel, is a seasoned Broadway vet, although he ironically never got a show-stopping number in the original film. That has mercifully changed with Frozen II, where his 80s-throwback song “Lost in the Woods” is the best of all the compositions from songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez. It’s one of many pop-culture in-jokes that toe the line between being too referential and just slyly funny enough. To describe the song further would ruin one of the film’s most delightful surprises.
There is also a great deal of Olaf, speaking of humor that tries to land on the right side of being too jokey. If you like the sentient snowman who loves warm hugs, you’re in for a treat—Olaf jockeys with the two sisters as the second lead of the film. The rest of us have to stew in silence through extended comic bits that land with a thud, as when Olaf hurriedly rushes through a plot synopsis of the first film for a captive audience of new characters. Less continues to be more with Olaf, which means his screen time is an aggressive albatross hanging around the rest of the film.
Those aforementioned new characters are plentiful, but it’s fascinating that none of them make much of an impact, nor are they meant to. Sterling K. Brown appears as a long-lost Arendellian Arendellite? We’ll have to wait for the third film to know for sure with a connection to Anna and Elsa’s parents, acquitting himself nicely enough in a mildly thankless role. The same goes for Martha Plimpton and Jason Ritter, both as denizens of the mysterious forest where our heroes spend most of the film. Yet Frozen II is not about the new characters, instead trying to expand upon the creaky mythology of the original. The expansion of said mythology does not improve its creakiness, sadly.
The truest improvement between films comes not in its story, but in its striking presentation. Though Elsa’s powers arrive in full bloom in the enchanted forest, the real power of this movie comes through its gorgeous, often jaw-dropping animation. Much of the film’s antagonism is driven by natural elements like air and water, which are visualized in crisp, detailed fashion that goes well beyond past Disney animated fare, hand-drawn or computer animated. An extended sequence midway through the film, in which Elsa goes on a very important journey of self-discovery, is visually one of the most accomplished sequences of the 80-plus years of Disney animation, period. The way that Disney animators have pushed computer technology to give life to even droplets of water is genuinely gasp-inducing. Whatever else can be said, Frozen II is truly beautiful.
Frozen II has an insurmountable challenge in front of it. When the original arrived in the late fall of 2013, no one would have predicted exactly how massive it became. Its songs became instant anthems, its story tapped into the vibrant spirit of young women around the world, and its characters were quickly welcomed into the collective public’s hearts. Nothing about this movie is going to ruin the original film’s impact, and it’s a more coherent story with a stronger emotional heart. It’s a good movie, a solid follow-up to a slightly less entertaining film. But only when its visuals do the talking does Frozen II really sing.
On the night of her 18th birthday, Mickey Peck Camila Morrone and her PTSD-addled dad James Badge Dale as Henry Peck take a rare trip out of their trailer for a celebratory bite at a local diner. Things start off well enough, but then Mickey makes the mistake of casually mentioning her late mother. Like many drug addicts, Henry is too focused on what he needs right now to handle any talk about the past; perversely, however, he's as sober-minded as it gets when it comes to the future. “The truth is that one day you're going to forget about me,” he says to his daughter as she eats a cheap burger with a plastic tiara on her head. “That's the way it is.” And he might be right. In fact, the most charitable moments of Annabelle Attanasio's small but deeply felt “Mickey and the Bear” make that prediction seem like a prophecy that Henry is eager to fulfill — like something that he wants to come true for Mickey as soon as possible.
Attanasio's debut might initially feel like a million other modern American indies it premiered at SXSW earlier this year, but the film soon matures into a tender coming-of-age drama that sidesteps the usual genre tropes on its way towards exploring some questions that we never grow out of asking ourselves. Questions like “how much of our lives do we owe other people?” and “at what point do you have to give up on someone you love?”
There aren't really any clear answers at the end of the road, but “Mickey and the Bear” is often moving for how sensitively it affirms the need to look for them anyway.
Attanasio, who some TV viewers with good memories and excellent taste might remember as an actress from her role on season two of “The Knick,” sets the scene with natural efficiency. It only takes a few expressive shots to appreciate the fabric of her characters' lives. It's never a good morning when Mickey is awakened by the light coming in through the ceiling window, and not the sounds of her dad playing video games or demanding his breakfast. And it only gets worse when the sheriff rolls up to her front door, and invites her into the squad car by name. At the station, she finds her dad regaling the cops with a joke or a funny war story, and they promise to let him go, so long as Mickey drives home — she tosses him the keys as soon as they're out of sight.
That's all it takes to understand the bond that exists between these two stranded people in Anaconda, Montana, which is a small place that's as big as the world might ever get for them. Mickey — who Morrone embodies with the vulnerability and raw ambivalence of a real teenager — genuinely loves her dad, and feels a natural obligation to take care of read: mother Hank, but she can't shake the feeling that everything good about her life so far exists in spite of him. When she catches her dad between one of his Oxy binges and insists that she's not going anywhere, her words sound as much like a promise as they do a surrender.
Attanasio's well-composed but naturalistic direction never belabors the point, and yet the writing in every scene helps cement the impression that Mickey is always cornered in one way or another. Her douchebag local boyfriend Ben Rosenfield is basically the most eligible bachelor in town, and his favorite topic of conversation is their future life together. Mickey's only friend is three months pregnant, and already locked into the next generation of Anacondan purgatory. Also — and this is underplayed just enough not to rankle — she works at a taxidermy store that houses the titular bear. Even the animals in this town are stuck in place. Mickey has too much potential for the movie around her to fall into miserablism, but it's telling that one of the most hopeful scenes is the typically expressive little moment when she turns 18 and buys a scratch-off lottery ticket.
“Mickey and the Bear” only accomplishes so much in its modest 82 minutes like most films of its kind, it builds to nothing more than a nudge in the right direction, but Attanasio makes you believe in the reality of these characters and the place that binds them together. An intriguing new love interest Calvin Demba threatens to tip things into “Gilmore Girls” territory, but Attanasio defuses the situation in a way that makes the whole film hit that much harder. And while Hank is a character who could easily lapse into histrionics, Dale's volatile performance locks him into the liminal space between a victim and a monster, and Attanasio's camera frames in moments of simple beauty like the scene where he and Mickey slow dance in an empty bar. So much of the movie's tension is mined from a genuine uncertainty over whether or not Mickey should leave, and it's only in the last scenes that Attanasio overplays her hand. It's not that the ending isn't plausible, but just that it too clearly points the way forward for a character who may spend the rest of her life wondering if she went in the right direction. But if “Mickey and the Bear” is most effective as a calling card for both its young director and its even younger star, it never loses sight of the idea that giving up on someone can be the only way to avoid giving up on yourself.
“Mickey and the Bear” is now playing in theaters via Utopia.
There's something wrong with the land in West Virginia, and Mark Ruffalo is on the case. That's the essence of “Dark Waters,” an urgent and respectable dramatization of corporate environmental defense attorney Rob Bilot's saga as he takes on the Dupont corporation for dumping toxic waste. Directed by Todd Haynes as a slow-burn accumulation of speechifying and paranoid research, “Dark Waters” rambles through Bilot's dreary detective work as he exposes an environmental hazard with the potential to impact the entire planet.
A didactic, sometimes listless thriller that drags at just over two hours, “Dark Waters” marks the most conventional directing effort in Haynes' career. Nevertheless, the central concerns of Ruffalo's passion project he also produced ensure a gravitas throughout that grounds the drama in profound concerns. Wearing a frozen scowl as he zips from damaged farmland to his ambivalent Cincinnati law firm, Ruffalo's troubled protagonist stops just shy of breaking the fourth wall and lecturing to the audience as he learns how to take on the Man. At the same time, it's hard not to get caught up in his crusade, and feel the sting whenever it seems like a lost cause.
As legal thrillers go, “Dark Waters” fits snugly into a familiar genre. Tapping into everything from “All the President's Men” and “The Insider” with a touch of “Spotlight” and “Erin Brockovich” for good measure, “Dark Waters” follows Bilot through the evolution of his interests in the case against DuPont, a company that his own firm represents. That central conflict — and Bilot's internal challenges reconciling his country roots with big-city ambitions — injects “Dark Waters” with palpable intrigue, despite the preachiness that bleeds into the material throughout.
Mario Correa's screenplay adapts an article by reporter Nathaniel Rich from The New York Times magazine, and the headline of that 2016 story epitomizes the movie's arc: “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare.” Bilot is on the verge of making partner at his firm and becoming a new father when he hears from Parkersburg farmer Wilbur Tennant Bill Camp, in a frantic turn about his dying cows, and suspicions that the nearby plant was to blame. In Rich’s article, Bilot first hears from Tennant by phone, but “Dark Waters” finds the rumpled figure barging into Bilot’s firm, recalling his family roots in the area. It’s a tight narrative contrivance that underscores the conflict at hand, as Bilot contends with dueling allegiances as his stable world unravels.
Since Bilot’s firm represents a range of corporate clients, his decision to take on DuPont forces continuing showdowns with his boss Tim Robbins, stern and troubled as well as the DuPont suits that consider Bilot and his peers as friendlies. These stagy showdowns are undercut by the lawyer’s eerie visits to Tennant’s farmland, where Haynes’ regular cinematographer Ed Lachman’s inky palette tinges the green landscapes with a shadowy aura bordering on sci-fi; similarly, the movie develops a disquieting atmosphere around Bilot’s lonely hours spent combing through covert documents as he gets closer to the truth of DuPont’s cover-up.
It’s here that “Dark Waters” gets closer to injecting the drama with intimate concerns: When Bilot finally arrives at the essence of his investigation, uncovering the toxic chemical in Teflon products that have infiltrated American households, he’s tasked with explaining the situation to his pregnant wife Anne Hathaway. And while the actress has been saddled with a thankless supporting role, the movie ventures into taut psychological uneasiness as Bilot grapples with the magnitude of his revelations.
While Ruffalo overplays the character’s panic-stricken mindset, Haynes reins it in, pitching the drama into Bilot’s disoriented headspace as his contradictory allegiances collapse into chaos and he finds himself increasingly isolated from the world around him. There’s an undeniable galvanizing effect to the movie’s closing passages, as Bilot tunnels through the backlash and career setbacks to forge a new battle that continues to this day.
Yet “Dark Waters” sticks to a level of naturalistic restraint that often flattens its material into rote dramaturgy rather than intensifying its concerns. Haynes may not be the most obvious match for this sort of well-intentioned agitprop, but nearly 30 years ago, “Poison” tackled the AIDS crisis and homophobia through a riveting allegorical lens. By those standards, “Dark Waters” is strictly by the book, an extension of the concerns recapped in the 2018 Teflon documentary “The Devil We Know” and others.
At the same time, Haynes and Ruffalo have conspired to inject their project with a covert non-fiction component, as end credits reveal multiple characters portrayed by their real-life counterparts, including a grown man disfigured at birth due to toxic waste. It’s a well-intentioned device, but winds up serving as a reminder that the truth is far more upsetting than any fictionalized take.
Still, the movie mines genuine substance from Bilot’s ceaseless determination against daunting odds, a quest that finds the man returning again and again to the courtroom. “You again,” one judge sighs. As a platform for Bilot’s efforts and why they deserve a national profile, the movie has a sincere sense of purpose. It’s a 20-year-old drama that extends into the present, and as environmental concerns continue to escalate, it couldn’t feel more contemporary. While “Dark Waters” chronicles the evolution of an activist, its most effective moment comes with a closing implication that its story has just begun.
Focus Features will open “Dark Waters” in theaters on Friday, November 22.