Director: Tom McCarthy
Screenplay: Tom McCarthy & Marcus Hinchey and Thomas Bidegain & Noé Debré
Stars: Matt Damon (Bill), Camille Cottin (Virginie), Abigail Breslin (Allison), Lilou Siauvaud (Maya), Deanna Dunagan (Sharon), Idir Azougli (Akim), Anne Le Ny (Leparq), Moussa Maaskri (Dirosa), Isabelle Tanakil (Isabelle), Naidra Ayadi (Nedjma), Gilbert Traïna (Bald Man)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2021
Country: U.S.

Tom McCarthy’s Stillwater makes for an interesting companion piece to his Oscar-winning Spotlight (2015), which detailed the true-life Boston Globe investigation that uncovered the grotesque extent of sexual abuse by Catholic priests throughout the state and the church’s attempts to cover them up. Unlike that film, Stillwater is a fictional drama, although it takes as inspiration the case of Amana Knox, an American exchange student in Italy who was convicted of murdering her British roommate in 2007 (her story was previously fictionalized in Michael Winterbottom’s ambitious and messy 2014 film The Face of an Angel). Like Spotlight, Stillwater is a procedural film that follows an attempted investigation into what we assume is a wrongful conviction, but unlike the earlier film, the procedural takes a backseat to the main character. While Spotlight was essentially about the investigatory process, Stillwater is about its protagonist and his gradual disillusionment.

The protagonist, Bill (Matt Damon), is a middle-aged Oklahoma roughneck whose college-age daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), has spent the past four years in a French prison after being convicted of murdering her roommate, with whom she was also romantically involved. Despite having been a mostly absent dad who has struggled with substance abuse for much of his life, Bill regularly travels to France to visit Allison. After her lawyer, Leparq (Anne Le Ny), refuses to look into the case any further, Bill takes it upon himself to follow up on leads that he thinks will prove his daughter’s innocence. Chief among these is finding a young man named Akim that Allison thinks was the real culprit and who was allegedly at a party with them the night her roommate was killed. Of course, no one can testify to this man’s existence, so Bill is chasing what may be a ghost or a lie.

Damon plays Bill as a solid, intense man of few words. A hardened product of red-state America, he wears his thick goatee and trucker caps as outward signifiers that suggest a certain politics he may very well not have (at one point a French character asks him point blank if he voted for Trump, to which he responds “No,” but then follows with the explanation that he didn’t vote at all because he’s a convicted felon). Bill seems as disinterested in politics as he is in anything other than getting his daughter out of prison, which makes him both determined and naïve. His investigation relies primarily on luck and happenstance, and he doesn’t speak a word of French, which makes him stand out all the more among the denizens of Marseilles, where the crime took place. He happens into a relationship with Virginie (Camille Cottin), a theatre actress with a young daughter named Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) who become a kind of surrogate family for him in France. Virginie first offers to help him by translating for him over the phone, and they gradually develop a bond that leads to Bill moving in with them and helping her take care of Maya.

A central theme in the film is that Bill is fated to fail, something that Allison says in particularly brutal fashion while also noting the same thing about herself (the sins of the father and all of that). The idea is that Bill, for his good intentions, is geared to eventually make a terrible choice and undo any and all good work he has done, which gives the film a constant, subtle tension. He makes a crucial error early in the film by lying to Allison about Leparq’s continued involvement in the case, a falsehood designed to help keep her from losing hope, but one that ends up potentially destroying their fragile relationship. Yet, we always sense that there are worse things to come, and about two-thirds of the way into the film, after a prolonged period of low-key domestic drama involving Bill and Virginie becoming romantically involved and his stepping into a father position with Maya that he failed to do when Allison was that age, he makes a choice to do something that could very well destroy everything. It is a choice that we understand on some level even as we see it as both desperate and foolish, which is essential to Bill’s character. His stoic face and broad shoulders hide the fact that inside he is like a desperate kid beholden to sudden impulses, and therein lie the seeds of his potential destruction.

McCarthy, who co-wrote the script with Marcus Hinchey (All Good Things), Thomas Bidegain (Dheepan, A Prophet), and Noé Debré (Dheepan), keeps the film steady and serious, which puts it in similar dramatic territory as Spotlight and his low-key, early independent efforts like The Visitor (2007) and Win Win (2011). McCarthy got his start in comedy, and he has directed a number of comedic features, including The Cobbler (2014) with Adam Sandler and, most recently, the Disney-produced Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made (2020). There isn’t much humor in Stillwater, and if the film has a weakness, it is that its tone is too consistently bleak, even when things seem to be working out for Bill. We always know that the other shoe is going to drop and that even if he “wins,” he will somehow still lose, which gives the film its tragic edge, but also makes it a fairly despondent experience to watch.

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Overall Rating: (3)

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