Stillwater (2021)
Stillwater (2021)

Genre: Crime Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 20 min.

Release Date: July 30th, 2021 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Tom McCarthy Actors: Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, Camille Cottin, Lilou Siauvaud, Moussa Maaskri, Deanna Dunagan, Idir Azougli, Anne Le Ny

 


 

B

ill Baker (Matt Damon) from Oklahoma works in construction, cleaning up obliterated homes in the aftermath of a tornado, while awaiting a return to his previous profession as a roughneck. It’s an eerily meaningful task, as he’s about to embark on a new mission to clean up the shattered pieces of his life. His daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), is currently in a French penitentiary, having served 5 years of a 9-year sentence, for the murder of her friend Lina. On one of his routine flights to Marseilles, where he’ll stay for two weeks, Bill visits with Allison, who passes him an urgent letter to be hand-delivered to her lawyer. She’s always insisted that she’s innocent, and with recent information about a mysterious man named Akim, who – via layers of hearsay – claims to have gotten away with a murder, Allison believes that a judge may reopen her case. But due to the nature of the evidence, which amounts to little more than gossip, chances are virtually nonexistent. Plus, they’d need a DNA test to aid in any potential exoneration.

Most disheartening for Bill is the fact that the letter specifically bypasses his own abilities to help his daughter, who doesn’t believe her father can be trusted with such an important duty. The lawyer expectedly instructs Bill not to give Allison any false hope – but he can’t bring himself to relate the dour details. Instead, he chooses to lie to her, setting himself up in a hotel and conducting an investigation on his own, hoping to locate the key witness and acquire a suitable DNA sample without legal assistance. He’s determined to be dependable by freeing his child … at any cost.

Sadly, not only does he not have the funds necessary to pay for the DNA test, but he also has no idea how to safely navigate the city. Fortunately, hotel neighbor Virginie (Camille Cottin), accompanied by her 9-year-old daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), can serve as a translator and guide – while also providing him with a second chance at love and raising a young girl. Yet navigating cultural and language barriers proves exceedingly difficult, especially without resources, a lack of knowledge with computers, and plenty of roadblocks when interviewing persons of interest. His plight is something of an unprofessional police procedural without the police, straying away from action or thrills in favor of slow-burn sleuthing.

With the political case comes political humor (in small doses), but it’s the serious relationship drama that quickly takes over from the gathering of clues and the levity of an undeveloped romantic pairing. The greatest tensions chiefly exist in conversations between Bill and Allison, both stuck in positions of powerlessness, while Bill’s interactions with Maya are a tremendously bittersweet experience of being present and participating in the life of a preteen – an opportunity to redeem himself from his largely absentee role in the upbringing of his real daughter (or, in the most defeating moments, to cause disappointment once again). His increasing closeness to Virginie similarly complicates the situation, but in a welcome manner. There are really two stories at work here, neither one blending harmoniously, but both retaining interest: a murder/mystery in need of answers and a lonesome man rebuilding a semblance of familial accord. This is never more evident than with the overlong running time and the infrequency in which the separate stories overlap.

“Stillwater” is ultimately, however, a performance piece, allowing Damon to shine in a weighty, dramatic role. He’s entirely believable as a failed father figure searching for the possibility of redemption, of doing something right to attest to a worthiness for the people he loves. The murder case, occasionally existing in the background, can only head in one direction, considering the obvious connection to the real-life trial of Amanda Knox; it’s this link, curiously enough, that creates the biggest detriment to the picture’s substance. The setup is thoroughly realistic, abandoning theatrics for the sake of genuineness, yet the revelations and actions brought about by the adapted tale take a sudden spiral toward fantasy during the third act. With a staggeringly manufactured, conspicuously cinematic turn of events, the sensibility and gravity are dashed aside for something markedly unreal. Nevertheless, it’s not quite enough to overcome the numerous moments that the actors have to save the script from itself, as they trade emotional dialogue and potent observations – including one of the most consequential, momentous closing lines of any film in recent memory.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10