Maybe not what you expected--It's a non formulaic thriller with a complicated hero, a tense justice framework, and a few comedic moments.
Stillwater is two movies in one: One thriller-like where Bill Baker (Matt Damon) tries to get his daughter, Allison (Abagail Breslin) out of a French prison where she has already spent five of nine years for the murder of her friend, Lena. This story is very loosely based on the murder of British student Meredith Kercher in 2007 allegedly by Amanda Knox.
The other story is romantic—where Bill hooks up with a French mother, Virginie (Camille Cottin), and her young daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). While each part has its dramatic thrust, the story consequently suffers from fragmented focus. However, lighter, almost comedic moments occur as Bill awkwardly navigates a culture he knows nothing about. Jason Bourne he is not.
The better part, actually, is with father returning regularly to Marseille to visit his daughter and to find familial love with Virginie and Maya. The small moments when Bill plays with Maya and teaches her English (which she reciprocates with French) are touching and unforced. Kudos to director Tom McCarthy and Damon for underplaying. Although almost cliched, this setup works to reveal Bill’s tender side and give the film a more charming aura.
In fact, Damon plays a credible construction, oil-rig worker with conservative underpinnings (“Yes, Mam” polite, prays before meals) and a lack of cultural training such as no experience with theater, which Virginie works in as an actress. Bill’s same stern, taciturn mien holds the drama less well as he works the courts and streets trying to find the murderer, who may be an Arab his daughter may be doing time for. He varies his reactions little, mostly morose but in his favor never a rep of American exceptionalism.
Damon and McCarthy do some magic to mitigate the obvious ugly American motif by making him a non-racist, a down-home, eagle-tatted guy just looking for a murderer and not looking to indict Arabs. Although the ending may disappoint some hoping for a clean reckoning, it does reveal what Bill thought all along—things have changed.
Stillwater (as in his Oklahoma hometown or “runs deep”?) gives audiences plenty of time to think about what they would do and feel in the same circumstances. “Plenty of time” as in a bloated 2h 20m. The film would have benefitted from cutting the introductory backgrounds and Bill with his new family and amplifying the thriller search for the actual murderer.
In the end, Stillwater is maybe not what you expected in a thriller, and that’s all to the good for American movies’ tendency to follow formula.
Director: Tom McCarthy (Spotlight)
Screenplay: Thomas Bidegain (A Prophet), Noe Debre (Dheepan), Marcus Hinchey (Come Sunday)
Cast: Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting)
Run Time: 2h 20m
John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at JohnDeSando62@gmail.com