Review: Matt Damon’s ‘Stillwater’
It’s understandable if you are taken in by a trailer that hints at a movie featuring an unknown dad going non-stop in cold pursuit of justice for his daughter (those numerous Liam Neeson references were for my own pleasure). In fact, this father has his own particular set of skills: he’s a master at carpentry and electrical work, he speaks the Oklahoma version of English, and he owns two guns (neither of which he has with him). And yes, Stillwater is billed as a crime thriller, but you should know, we see very little crime, and the thrills are mostly non-existent. Despite all that, I connected with the story, not as a thriller, but rather as a character study of a flawed man trying to do the right thing by his daughter and find redemption for himself.
Oscar-winner Matt Damon plays Bill Baker, a quiet out-of-work oil worker whom we first see on a clean-up crew after a disastrous tornado. Not long after, he’s on an international flight to Marseille to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin). She’s been incarcerated for five years after being found guilty of stabbing her French-Arab lover, Lina, to death. In a highly publicized trial, Allison held fast to her claim of innocence, and still does. Her father visits regularly, delivering supplies and clean laundry. Although they hug on the visits, a definite chasm exists. We later learn that Bill previously struggled with drugs and alcohol and never received votes for Father of the Year. Allison asks her father to deliver a sealed letter to her attorney claiming there is new evidence in her case – she heard a guy named Akim had bragged at a party about committing Lina’s murder.
You likely noticed the similarities to the 2007 Amanda Knox case. The difference being that was Italy, this is France; and it was Amanda’s roommate, not lover. In this movie, the media fascination is derived from the ‘rich’ entitled American white girl brutally murdering her minority working-class lesbian lover (a textbook Hollywood rendering). Allison growing up poor in Oklahoma mattered little to the media.
Damon plays Bill as a stoic, Heartland of America man who’ll do anything for “his little girl.” But he’s no Jason Bourne. He’s the proverbial fish-out-of-water on this mission. He doesn’t speak a bit of French, and depends on the kindness of local actress Virginie (Camille Cottin, Allied, 2016) to be his interpreter and cultural guide in a world he doesn’t comprehend. Bill quickly bonds with Virginie’s precocious daughter Maya (a sterling film debut by Lilou Siauvaud), and soon a platonic family unit has formed. Bill’s frequent prayers and odd American manners are the perfect cultural clash with Virginie’s artsy French ways. Of course, this ultimately leads to a shift in the platonic nature of their relationship.
The film is directed by Tom McCarthy, an Oscar-winner for Spotlight (2015). I highly recommend two of his other films, the excellent The Visitor (2007), and his sinfully under-seen directorial debut The Station Agent (2003). McCarthy co-wrote this script with Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noe Debre, which explains why the French details are so spot-on. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi delivers brilliant camera work to go with the story’s methodical pacing, and Mychael Danna’s music adds intensity and depth to situations both quiet and fraught with emotion. Damon does some of his best work here as a man burdened with his own past and slowly becoming aware of possible personal and family life redemption. Ms. Breslin burst on the scene in 2006 with Little Miss Sunshine, and she has transitioned well to adult roles and although this role is somewhat abbreviated, she still does nice work in her scene with Maya and Virginie.
Bill and Virginie and Maya have some terrific segments together, including a dance to Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night”. I’m guessing the rousing applause the film and actors received at Cannes was due partly to its French setting, and also to the depth of Bill’s character (and Damon’s performance). There are elements that seem far-fetched and maybe even overly complex, but viewed as the story of one man, it delivers some thought-provoking topics to the big screen. And yes, “life is brutal.”