Movie Review: ‘Stillwater’ Veers Away from Action Premise to Provide Humanity
Director: Tom McCarthy Plot: A father travels from Oklahoma to France to help his estranged daughter, who is in prison for a murder she claims she didn’t commit.
Writers: Tom McCarthy, Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain
Stars: Matt Damon, Camille Cottin, Abigail Breslin
Director: Tom McCarthy
Plot: A father travels from Oklahoma to France to help his estranged daughter, who is in prison for a murder she claims she didn’t commit.
If one had to pin down the themes you might expect to see in a Tom McCarthy movie, they are these: a loner on the outskirts of society; a ragtag group of social misfits who band together; the humanizing of isolation and loneliness. His excellent debut The Station Agent featured a star-making turn from Peter Dinklage and proved to be quiet, thoughtful, and remarkably deep. His follow-up, The Visitor, was in a similar vein, ensuring McCarthy earned himself a reputation for the sweetly melancholic.
Then, The Cobbler happened. While it retained those same McCarthyesque themes, the Adam Sandler vehicle never got going, proving to be cloyingly saccharine and overcooked. This was a shame because McCarthy is no fly-by-nighter; his movies are genuine and touching – a far cry from the typical mainstream Hollywood fare which feel more emotionally manipulating than earned. He even wrote the story for Pixar’s Up, which has arguably the most devastating opening 10 minutes in cinematic history.
2015’s Spotlight was a remarkable return to form, even winning Oscars for Best Film and Best Screenplay. Ignoring a few odd choices such as Timmy Failure – which had more of a gun-for-hire feel to it – his follow-up Stillwater feels like McCarthy accessing the roots of what makes him tick as a filmmaker. While it doesn’t reach the heights of his earlier work, the hallmarks are all there: fish out of (Still)water loner? Check. A society that shuns him? Check. Redemption through kindness? Check. All of that – plus an excellent turn from Matt Damon – makes Stillwater a rewarding watch.
Bill Baker (Matt Damon) is a self-confessed fuck up. A drunk and deadbeat dad, he’s trying to fix his life and make amends to those he hurt, specifically his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin). Allison fled all the way to Marseille to escape her father and traumatic past and wound up charged for the murder of her girlfriend Lina. Determined to free his little girl from prison, Bill relocates to Marseille in an attempt to find out the truth behind the death of Lina, but as a monolingual American in a city that doesn’t trust him, finding out the truth will be harder than he thinks. He enlists the help of Virginie (Camilla Cottin) to translate for him as he moves around the city, while becoming closer with her and her young daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud).
On paper this may sound like Jason Bourne meets Taken, but anyone expecting Damon to careen around Marseille cracking heads and shooting guns will be sorely disappointed. Stillwater is more family drama than actioner. Bill is a typical Southern gentleman who never responds to a woman without calling her ma’am first, says grace at every mealtime, and while he does own two guns, neither of them accompany him to France. Though Bill has a murky past (we’re told he’s done time, but the details of his crime are left out), he’s essentially a good-hearted person who wants to atone for the past. He makes no apologies for the brash American that he is, wasting no time with small talk or pleasantries of any kind. Instead he pleads with his daughter’s lawyer to investigate the missing link in the case: a man who bragged about killing Lina at a party, and when the lawyer refuses, Bill must then beseech Virginie for her help. He is frequently humbled and always, always stoic. It’s fascinating to see Damon play this kind of character – so at odds with the personality he often presents on screen. The quiet, muscly, tattooed Bill is a world away from Bourne, or Ocean Eleven‘s Linus. The first impression is that there’s nothing much beneath the surface, but slowly Damon brings forward a little more of Bill’s soft side, especially in his relationship with Maya, for whom he becomes something of a surrogate father.
Less interesting is his daughter Allison. If this story sounds familiar to you, it’s because it bears more than a passing resemblance to the Amanda Knox saga – Knox herself excoriated the movie in a series of tweets – which resulted in the exoneration of Knox after the real criminal was discovered. The real life story is a fascinating one, but Breslin gets no real opportunity to develop her character. She feels more like a plot device, a reason for Bill to be out there looking for something. As such it’s difficult to ever feel sympathy for her character, especially as she grows more and more unlikeable as the movie progresses.
What lifts Stillwater out of the doldrums of mediocrity is the performances of the actors and McCarthy’s admirable determination to steer away from the cliched idea of revenge actioner which this could so easily have been, and instead craft something more insightful and intelligent. For that alone, he wins points.