Stillwater has the kind of ripped-from-the-headlines premise that is sure to immediately get eyes rolling: an American student is convicted of the murder of her roommate in a foreign country, and her father will have to take the law into his own hands to try to liberate her. It sounds like Amanda Knox meets blue-collar Taken, and it’s surely the kind of sordid, sentimental thriller that is barely worth a second thought.
And yet. Stillwater surprises, with emotions that run deeper and a subdued central performance by Matt Damon that goes beyond the kind of jingoistic vigilante justice expected to be doled out by a character with that beard and that dress sense. It’s a flawed, but engaging performance that embodies the flawed, but engaging family drama that Stillwater turns out to be.
Director Tom McCarthy helms Stillwater with the same kind of invisible hand with which he directed Spotlight — with so little flash or flair, that it might get him accused of being a journeyman director. But McCarthy’s understated brand of filmmaking is one that works in favor of the actors, with Damon in particular turning in a nuanced performance as a father attempting to make amends to his imprisoned daughter (Abigail Breslin).
It’s been five years since Allison Baker (Breslin) was convicted of the murder of her roommate and girlfriend, Lina, while studying abroad in Marseilles, France. Her father, Bill Baker (Damon), has developed a sort of routine in the years since: take a break from his job at the oil rig in Stillwater, Oklahoma — which isn’t exactly thriving anyway — collect some personal photos and paraphernalia from his mother’s house, and take a flight to Marseilles, where he stays for two weeks to visit his daughter. They’ve grown used to this, almost too comfortable — until Allison secretly hands her father a note that she pleads must go to her lawyer. With the help of a fellow guest (Camille Cottin) at the motel he always stays at, Bill learns that Allison had heard of new evidence that Lina’s real killer is still out there and, when the lawyer refuses to re-open the case, sets out to find him himself.
Only, he doesn’t. And when he does, things don’t change much. Stillwater isn’t a revenge flick or a glorious tribute to American bravado — it’s a quieter, more affecting story of personal and systemic failings, and figuring out how to live with that. It all plays out in Damon’s central performance as an almost stereotypical redneck oil worker who only has one shirt and baseball cap, an extremely Oklahoma accent, and who looks like he voted for Trump. At one point, a character even asks him about this, and they receive a typically brusque reply from Bill (for the record, he didn’t, because he was a felon). Hilariously out of place in the grimy streets of Marseilles, Damon’s star presence and Bill’s entire demeanor would have you believe that Stillwater would be an exercise in American rugged individualism, with Damon punching his way through the secretive gangs of Marseilles’ underbelly to free his daughter from prison. Instead, Bill looks and feels lost, not just in this misguided quest, but in a city that refuses to bend around him, no matter how much he refuses to learn French.
The film shifts focus, instead, to Bill’s relationship with that motel neighbor Virginie and her eight-year-old daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), with whom he forms a close and sweet connection. Their relationship is remarkably innocent — Bill having struck up an unusual friendship with Maya before Virginie, a theater actress and activist, decides to take on Bill as her sort of new project, sympathizing with his plight. When their amateur attempts to locate the real culprit turn up dead ends, Stillwater relaxes into a found-family character drama between this unlikely trio. Remarkably, the case itself almost becomes inconsequential.
As the film luxuriates in the sweet moments between Bill, Virginie, and Maya, it unearths some of his greatest flaws — he was an absentee father to Allison, an alcoholic whose demons seemed to have passed on to his daughter. The engaging character drama, the film’s moody atmosphere, and McCarthy’s willingness to explore failures both personal and systemic — whether it’s in the legal system or the cycle of poverty that Allison was trying to escape — elevate Stillwater to be something more than its true-crime trappings. That is, until McCarthy’s script, which he co-wrote with Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noé Debré, decides to rip that all away with an ending that completely flies in the face of everything the film had been until that point.
Despite its very flawed ending and baggy structure, Stillwater goes against the tide of our expectations and offers us a disarmingly affecting character study, anchored by an exceptional performance by Damon. Not even his bad beard could distract from that.
/Film Rating: 7 out of 10
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