Director: Tom McCarthy Starring: Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, Camille Cotin, Lilou Siauvaud Running Time: 140 minutes
It’s fair to say that director Tom McCarthy has a keen interest on real life tragedies. While making his bones with independent films like The Station Agent and The Visitor, he has become renowned for his work directing the likes of Best Picture winner Spotlight and executive producing the hit Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. Both of the latter involve holding up a mirror to tragic controversies and telling the story through the lens of victims. This task, in itself, often involves provocation, as evidenced by the decision to cut the most graphic scenes from the first season of 13 Reasons Why. His latest feature Stillwater is again approaching very sensitive subject matter, and has been criticised in some circles for effectively taking the real life events of the Amanda Knox story without asking for permission prior to doing so.
Stillwater introduces us to Bill Baker (Matt Damon), an Oklahoma oil worker who is travelling to Marseille to visit his estranged daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin). The circumstances are not what either of them would like, as Allison finds herself around half way between her prison sentence after being convicted for killing her former lover and roommate Lina. It’s a story straight out of Banged Up Abroad, as Allison met and allegedly killed Lina while spending what was presumably her year abroad studying in France. While it is made clear from the very outset that Bill and Allison share an uncomfortable and distanced relationship both physically and metaphorically, we also see that Bill is spending a considerable amount of time travelling between France and the States. Even though he seems to be there every other week, he struggles to utter even a word of French, and cuts a deeply isolated figure as he spends lonely nights in a Best Western hotel desperately trying to piece together a plan for Allison’s reprieve. He is a man who is desperate to convict someone for Allison’s alleged crime, but has no conviction about how he should go about doing so.
Things start to get heated on two fronts. Firstly, there appears to be a new aspect of Allison’s case that opens up. One or two elusive but local figures come out of the blue as potential suspects, and this leads Bill to ask for much needed assistance from a mother and daughter who he happens to come across while staying in Marseille. Initially at least, these two events are interlinked. Bill is driven by the sole desire to cast enough doubt on Allison’s guilt, and to do this he needs access to certain people that don’t speak English. He essentially recruits neighbour Virginie (Camille Cottin) as a translator after helping her eight year old daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). As Bill becomes closer to what he believes to be the undiscovered but crucial elements of Allison’s case, he needs to spend more time in Marseille, and does so by staying with Virginie and Maya.
Stillwater arguably suffers from the classic problem of not knowing what type of film it wants to be. It’s almost surprising how much of an emphasis there is on the burgeoning connection between Bill and Virginie, and the father figure that he ultimately becomes for young Maya. While it often feels like this narrative may not entirely belong in the story that Stillwater is trying to tell, there’s an undeniable charm that it brings. Damon’s performance in particular is superb. He is more understated than you’ve ever seen before, and he rarely gets past first gear in how animated he is, even in spite of the tragic and frustrating circumstances on screen. It is easy to conclude that his cold and hesitant demeanour make him a boring and one-dimensional character here, but there’s a lot more going on. He is a man trapped by and entombed in the masculine image that he feels he needs to project. He’s as rust belt as they come, but he’s also in the position of having to protect what he feels to be his innocent and naive daughter. He needs to project strength, conceal weakness, and do all of this while navigating the infuriating situation of being trapped in a place where you literally cannot communicate to others around you. For what Damon is in this role, he’s magnificent. Any sentiment that does come across comes from his bonding with Virginie and Maya. Lilou Siauvaud in particular proves that not all child characters have to be annoying, and there’s a sense that Bill and Maya are the missing pieces in each other’s lives.
The criticism is that Stillwater deviates from the father daughter story that it ostensibly is trying to focus on. There’s a realistic but disconnected portrayal of the relationship between Bill and Allison, to the point that Allison in particular is made out to be ungrateful, selfish, and indifferent to anyone’s plight other than herself. This criticism would not ordinarily be such a deal breaker, as there’s plenty else happening to keep the audience occupied. However, the context behind this film is that it’s being criticised as flying dangerously close to portraying a real life event without acknowledging it. In sidelining Allison, and in drawing a connection between her and Knox in a manner that seems to judge her quite harshly, it’s not quite clear whether this specific aspect of Stillwater is handled with the necessary care.
Taking this into account, there’s plenty to admire about this. It really does succeed in putting you into the bustling streets of Marseille, and has a lot of charm to it even despite its tragic context. For Damon’s performance alone, it’s worth seeing.(3.5 / 5)