Starring Matt Damon, Camille Cottin, Abigail Breslin, Lilou Siauvaud, Deanna Dunagan, Idir Azougli, Anne Le Ny, Lea McCormick, Ginifer Ree, Ryan Music, Kyle Jacob Henry, Robert Peters, Lena Harmon, Kelly Bellacci, Lisandro Boccacci, April Warren, Erin Herring, Leesa Neidel, Moussa Maaskri, Justin France, Gary Sievers, Emily Bertels and Geoff Barron.
Screenplay by Tom McCarthy & Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain & Noé Debré.
Directed by Tom McCarthy.
Distributed by Focus Features. 140 minutes. Rated R.
Much like the hero at the center of the film, Stillwater is not at all what you originally expect it will be. Looking at it just from the trailer, it appears to be a thriller about an American girl jailed for murder in Europe – perhaps somewhat loosely based on the Amanda Knox case.
However, that thumbnail sketch is far from doing credit to the complex character-driven charm and complicated geo-political and cultural issues which co-writer/director Tom McCarthy (Spotlight, The Station Agent, The Visitor) brings to the story. This Stillwater runs much deeper than you may at first expect.
The story mostly lays on the broad shoulders of Matt Damon, who does some of his finest work as Bill Baker, an Oklahoma sometimes-employed construction worker and self-described “fuck up,” who must fly to Marseille in France when his estranged daughter Allison (played by grown-up former child star Abigail Breslin) is jailed for nine years for the murder of her girlfriend.
Bill would seem spectacularly unqualified for the task of traversing the complicated French legal system – a fact even that his daughter recognizes. Amongst other things, he stubbornly speaks no French, not even trying to learn the native language even though he has been visiting periodically for five years since his daughter has been involved in her legal troubles.
She begs him to deliver a letter to her lawyer, discussing a slight lead towards finding a man she claims was responsible for the killing. When the lawyer dismisses the lead as mere hearsay, Bill lies to Allison, saying the lawyer is tracking things down, and he starts to investigate himself.
Of course, speaking no French, he has his work cut out for him. He meets a neighbor in the hotel, Virginie (Camille Cottin) and befriends her and her adorable little daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). Virginie agrees to be his translator and help him find the man who his daughter claims was responsible for the killing.
This is one of many places where Stillwater goes against the grain of the thriller playbook. The film luxuriates in the growing friendship between Bill and Maya – and her mother – to the point where he even becomes a roommate. Bill starts to appreciate the way of life there, even (sacré bleu!) learning a bit of French.
It turns out that Bill is not the stereotypical ugly American that some would assume. He is a soft-spoken, very devout and sometimes self-deprecating man who does recognize his faults and bears a lot of guilt for not being there for Allison when she was growing up. However, he does have some faults which will feed into the stereotype – he is quick-tempered, stubborn and tends to always think he is right.
Of course, in the post-Trump atmosphere when America is looked at with more suspicion than at previous times, it makes this kind of character even more of a balancing act. The people he meets in France generally come to like, or at least respect him, but few totally trust him.
This is made blatant when Virginie’s best friend outright asks him, “Did you vote for Trump?” For the record he didn’t, but with the proviso that it was because he had a criminal record and couldn’t vote. Bill never states one way or another what his political leanings are. (On a guess, I’d say he would have, but that’s just a guess, and in this case, it really doesn’t matter, anyway.)
This ambiguity is part of what makes Stillwater so fascinating. Every man has their own reasons in life. Stillwater lets you get closer to people which you may judge upon sight, and it lets you realize that they are not as transparent as you may have originally thought. Allison and Virginie also turn out to be much more complex than first glance would say.
The movie slightly gets away from McCarthy when Bill actually tracks down the man who may be the killer. But even after this slight plotting misstep, Stillwater regains its footing.
At nearly two and a half hours long, Stillwater sometimes luxuriates in going off on side-tracks and making character more important than plot, but the film never drags. Apart from the short plot hiccup noted above, it is always fascinating. And if Damon is not nominated for an Oscar for this role, then there is something wrong in the world.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2021 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 30, 2021.