Stillwater is a gripping, thoughtful drama with some excellent performances, but all of that’s overshadowed by the movie’s insensitive handling of its real-world inspiration. Matt Damon stars as Bill Baker, an unemployed oil rig worker who travels to Marseille to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin).
We quickly learn that Allison has spent the last five years in a French prison for allegedly murdering her girlfriend. Desperate to prove her innocence Allison recruits her dad to pass on a new lead to her lawyer, but when her appeal falls on deaf ears, Bill takes matters into his own hands to prove his daughter’s innocence.
Stillwater isn’t the movie you expect it to be when you see it’s from Tom McCarthy, the same director who made the fantastic Spotlight. It’s not a tight thriller movie about uncovering historic corruption or action movie about revealing the truth. Instead, the film is more of a character study and a meditation on the need for acceptance if we ever want to move past old traumas.
Damon’s Bill, a man with a troubled past, is given the most focus through the film, and the Dead Poets Society star gives a wonderfully understated performance. It would have been very easy to make Bill a southern American caricature, but Damon manages to make the character incredibly believable as a lost soul searching for any meaning in life.
There’s an inherent tragedy to the character of Bill, who the film goes out of its way to remind us is a ticking time bomb who’ll eventually “fuck up”, coming so close to finding peace before having his chance at happiness snatched away by his own actions. I had a knot in my stomach throughout the second and third acts waiting for him to mess things up, and when he inevitably does, it broke my heart.
None of this drama would have worked, though, if it wasn’t for the wonderful Camille Cottin and Lilou Siauvaud. The pair play Virginie and Maya, a mother and daughter respectively, who form a strange new family for Bill. The relationship between Bill and his new pseudo-family forms the movie’s emotional spine and allows the audience to really sympathise with this Oklahoman fish out of water.
Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi manages to make the streets of Marseille both incredibly sinister and warm and inviting at the same time, as well as adding a surprising amount of excitement to McCarthy’s rather deliberate pacing.
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Speaking of the pacing, it’s an issue. While the film never quite lost my interest, it certainly came close during some scenes. The bloated run time was perhaps most notable during the film’s climax, where it came down with an unfortunate case of Return of the King syndrome and kept not ending.
Now, let’s to address the elephant in the room, the recent comments by Amanda Knox about the movie. Stillwater is clearly drawing huge influence from the real-life story of Knox’s four-year imprisonment after she was falsely accused of murdering her roommate Meredith Kercher and her subsequent exoneration. Knox has made it clear she has no affiliation with the film and has voiced her displeasure with the filmmakers taking her story from her.
The shadow of Amanda Knox looms large over the movie, and excuses that the film is a character study focused on a fictional character, who just so happens to be involved in a situation that’s eerily similar to Knox’s, aren’t much of a defence. While watching Stillwater, as thoughtful and engaging as it may be, it’s impossible not to think of Knox’s recent comments, and it turned me off the film.
Is that a particularly fair, objective criticism of the movie? No, no, it’s not, but criticism, like art, is subjective, and I’d be derelict in my duties if I didn’t write that McCarthy’s decision not to involve Knox in the filmmaking process disturbs me and made it impossible to truly enjoy the film.
Stillwater is a fine movie; well made, with some great performances. If only it had approached the source material with some sensitivity, maybe I’d be writing it’s an excellent film. As things stand, though, watching it was an uncomfortable experience that I wouldn’t recommend.