Synopsis – A father travels from Oklahoma to France to help his daughter who has been arrested for murder.
My Take – While the fact that a non-sequel, serious, big-scale thriller-drama film from a leading director has released in cinemas is in itself a cause celebration, as most of these former dependable source of theatrical entertainment have now moved on to become a part of prestige television, knowing that it is the theatrical follow-up to the Best Picture Oscar winning Spotlight (2015) for filmmaker Tom McCarthy makes up for enough reason to jump in.
Based very loosely on the 2007 case of Amanda Knox, the American college student who was charged with murdering her roommate in 2007 in Italy, here, director and co-screenwriter Tom McCarthy uses the true-to-life narrative to explore the wider culture of a foreign city through the eyes of an American who is completely out of his depth, while trying to absolve his imprisoned daughter.
Equal parts character study and intriguing mystery, the film, unlike what its marketing material wants us to believe, actually avoids being an edgy thriller and focuses more on quieter scenes that are more impactful with a pinch of moral ambiguity thrown in for good measure.
Though the film arguably does possess a slight focus problem, it is rather excellent when it is more interested in exploring generational trauma and the ways estranged parents and children mirror each other’s traits and mistakes.
Anchored by the ever dependable Matt Damon‘s career-topping performance, the film has all the trappings of a winning thoughtful drama, holding our attention from the opening moments to the closing scene.
The story follows Bill Baker (Matt Damon), an out of work oil worker with a messy past, who is traveling to Marseille, France, to visit his incarcerated estranged daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), because her maternal grandmother Sharon (Deanna Dunagan) can’t make the trip. Five years into her nine-year prison sentence, Allison, while attending university in Marseille, was convicted of killing her roommate and unfaithful Arab lover, Lina.
All these years, Allison has continued to maintain her innocence, and now with a new lead popping up, she gives Bill a letter to deliver to her defense lawyer hoping it will reopen investigation into the missing actual suspect named Akim (Idir Azougli). But when the lawyer dismisses him, Bill decides to do his own digging.
Meanwhile, he also forms a solid friendship with a local actor Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her young daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), as the former helps him with his quest, and the latter begins to teach him the language.
Though there is a tragic mystery at the heart of this narrative that brings plenty of tension that challenges all the characters involved, the film comprises of emotional storytelling whilst remaining engaging through a smart balance of drama and humor.
Here, director Tom McCarthy, who co-wrote the film with Marcus Hinchey, and two French screenwriters, Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré, clearly wanted the audience to feel disoriented in this fish-out-of-water tale with local authenticity.
As it solely from the point of view of a frequently baffled Bill, who struggles to navigate his way through a city and justice system he has no familiarity with, raising question like did Allison commit the murder or not? Will Bill be able to prove her innocence? The film twists our expectations so that none of the characters in any of their circumstances will know how they’re going to end.
But as the film progresses, even as Bill initially makes little headway, the murder case kind of dissolves into the background, as his relationship with Virginie and May deepens, giving him a second chance of having a perfect family. One of the film’s best qualities is the whole family dynamics on both fronts.
We learn that both Bill and his daughter have been estranged for some time and the mother/daughter allows Bill the chance to redeem himself from the mistakes he made of not being in Allison’s life.
Hence it comes as a little disappointment when the final act throws in a new development in the investigation which works towards providing definitive answers to a mystery that probably didn’t need to be solved. The film soared in more ambiguous territory, when it merely hints at the details of the murder Allison was convicted of, and Bill’s past failures as a father.
However it helps that the film is anchored by Matt Damon who gives one of the most nuanced and moving performances of his career. Here, he plays Bill with a wounded sincerity, mixing self-deprecation and toughness as he tries to navigate a different culture and to mend a frosty relationship with his imprisoned daughter.
Abigail Breslin clearly deserves more screen time, as she manages to deliver a raw and vulnerable performance, despite her questionable innocence. Camille Cottin and Lilous Siauvaud also manage to stand out and add layers to a complex story. Deanna Dunagan is good in a small role. On the whole, ‘Stillwater’ is a very likable, engaging and ultimately bracing drama about grief, redemption, and suffering.
Directed – Tom McCarthy
Rated – R
Run Time – 139 minutes