James Jay Edwards reviews Stillwater, a crime drama film directed by Tom McCarthy and starring Matt Damon. (Focus Features)
How do you follow up an Academy Award-winning movie detailing the true story of the uncovering of a massive child molestation scandal within the Catholic Church? If you’re Tom McCarthy, you follow up Spotlight with a Disney movie about an 11-year-old detective who has a polar bear for an imaginary friend. But when you decide to tackle a serious issue again, you make Stillwater.
Stillwater is about an unemployed oil rigger named Bill Baker (The Martian’s Matt Damon) from Stillwater, Oklahoma, whose daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin from Zombieland), went off to college in Marseille, France. While there, Allison was convicted of killing her roommate and was subsequently thrown in prison. During one of Bill’s visits, Allison provides him with a lead that may prove her innocence. Both Allison’s lawyer and the police decline to investigate the new evidence, so, with the help of a friendly local named Virginie (Allied’s Camille Cottin), Bill decides to follow up on the lead himself, his daughter’s life and freedom on the line.
(Stillwater, theatrical release poster, courtesy Focus Features)
The screenplay for Stillwater, written by McCarthy along with Thomas Bidegain (A Prophet) and Marcus Hinchey (All Good Things), is loosely based on the Amanda Knox case in which an American foreign exchange student spent four years in an Italian prison on murder charges of which she was eventually acquitted. Stillwater is a bit more cloak-and-dagger, as Knox was acquitted based on forensic evidence and not because of a relative that pounded the pavement to find the real killer. Stillwater is probably much more entertaining than the real story.
And most of Stillwater is fascinatingly entertaining, even gripping at times. Bill’s determination to free his daughter, even to the point of putting himself in physical peril, is compelling, and his arc takes him all over the map. He goes from devoted father to obsessed investigator and, by the end, his journey even takes him to some pretty dark places.
(Stillwater, photos by Jessica Forde, courtesy Focus Features)
To get there, however, Stillwater takes some long and tedious detours. The movie is very schizophrenic, with Bill tracking down evidence one moment, then playing father figure to Virginie’s young daughter, Maya (played wonderfully by newcomer Lilou Siauvaud—hopefully, we’ll get to see more from this young actress). Of course, McCarthy is trying to show the family-man side of Bill, and when you have Matt Damon in your cast, you want to give him something to chew on, but these scenes tend to derail the momentum of the more suspenseful aspects of the movie.
So, Stillwater is part family drama and part mystery thriller, but it’s also a bit of a fish-out-of-water movie. McCarthy uses the French setting to shine a light on how Europeans look at Americans. From the start of his journey, Bill is alienated. The biggest and most obvious hurdle in Bill’s investigation is the language barrier, with him only knowing English and being dependent on finding people who also know it to communicate (this is where Virginie comes in extremely handy). When the subject of owning guns jokingly comes up, Bill answers seriously, as if the question itself wasn’t mocking him. He is also asked sarcastically if he voted for Trump (the answer to that is “no,” as Bill is a felon so he can’t vote—but one gets the feeling they know what the answer would be if he could). These little bits of Stillwater can almost be seen as un-American, but, in reality, they hold up a mirror.
(Stillwater, photo by Jessica Forde, courtesy Focus Features)
There’s a tight 90-minute mystery in Stillwater. The problem is that its actual running time is almost two-and-a-half hours. So, you’ve got to wade through the fluff to find it.
Stillwater is in theaters now.
Check out the podcast Eye On Horror for more with James Jay Edwards, and also features Jonathan Correia and Jacob Davison.