Stillwater is a movie inspired by the true story of Amanda Knox, a college student who was wrongfully convicted and acquitted with the murder of her roommate overseas. The Tom McCarthy-directed drama (the director of 2015’s Best Picture winner Spotlight) recently premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to mostly favorable reception. Critics have praised the performance of one of Hollywood’s favorite leading men, Matt Damon, with some even saying the film is a career-best for him.
Damon plays the role of Bill Baker, a down on his luck oil-rig worker. Bill is also the father of Allison (Abigail Breslin), the student who has been imprisoned in France for the last five years after being found guilty of murdering her roommate and lover, Lina. Bill is the spitting image of the stereotypical man of rural America. Damon disappears in the role underneath his goatee, tucked-in jeans, and heavy southern accent. When he visits his daughter in France, Bill is an obvious fish-out-of-water. He doesn’t speak any French, despite having been to the country on multiple occasions, and his appearance doesn’t help hide him either.
The opening act of Stillwater is an investigative thriller and legal drama. Bill’s search for the man who committed the murder his daughter has been framed for proves to be an intense sequence of events. You can sense the hostility towards Bill as he snoops around where he isn’t wanted. Stillwater is initially reminiscent of McCarthy’s Spotlight in that the anxiety is gradually ramped up as the characters move closer to discovering something big. However, this early sequence of events proves to be a tease. Only a third or so of the way into the runtime and Stillwater becomes an entirely different movie. The film becomes a character study of Bill as the screw-up father.
Despite the language barrier, Bill befriends Virginie (Camille Cottin), a French single mother and actress. She has a little girl named Maya (played by Lilo Siauvaud who will steal your heart) whom Bill stands in as a father figure. While looking to stay in France to stay close to his daughter, Virginie and Maya offer Bill a home if he can cook dinner and fix the occasional short circuit. As Bill spends more time in France and with the family, he begins to adapt to the area and learn the language. Bill begins to find a new life for himself and is given a second chance to be a father after it is revealed he struggled with addiction during Allison’s childhood.
Redemption and acceptance are two significant themes in the second act of Stillwater. Both Bill and his daughter must come to terms with the past and acknowledge their collective fates. This is the only path to peace the characters are searching for. In the hands of more mediocre acting, the middle chapter of the script would’ve felt dry and meandering. Instead, the cast captivates on the screen; Damon holds Stillwater together with his understated performance. He fills his eyes with anger and desperation, and flood works are reserved only for when they are needed most. Some of the most poignant moments of the film are those of quiet prayer, God being one of the few listeners Bill can turn to in crisis.
The middle act of Stillwater also loosely dips its toe into political and racial tensions in France. By dressing Bill in such an American outfit, McCarthy is better able to emphasize the external cultural differences between France and America. There is a scene where Virginie has one of her theater friends over and Bill is teasingly asked whether he has a gun and if he voted for Trump; Bill is pegged to be a stereotypical American and only partially lives up to the expectation. What is less obvious is how similar France and America are on the inside. In the political context of the setting for Stillwater, France is facing a refugee crisis. There has been a flood of Arab immigrants who have entered the nation – Allison’s former roommate being one of them. We witness in the film a rhetoric reminiscent of what we may hear in America directed towards Mexican immigrants. There is a shopkeeper who is asked if he recognizes any of the faces Bill shows him, to which the shopkeeper asserts he could care less which Arab boy goes to prison. Stillwater demonstrates how prejudice is a global pandemic unrestricted to any region.
Stillwater is three mediocre movies packaged into one: investigative thriller, legal drama, and family drama/character study. The film’s lack of a singular direction or intention detracts from the overall impact on the viewer. Stillwater is still worth seeing for Matt Damon’s performance, which may land him some press during awards season.