Review by James Lindorf
You can’t escape the comparisons between what happened with Amanda Know nearly 15 years ago and Academy Award® winning writer and director Tom McCarthy’s latest film “Stillwater.” The film is loosely inspired by her journey through the Italian legal system. It is a complete work of fiction that asks the question, what if everyone gave up on the young woman in question except for her semi-estranged father. McCarthy co-wrote this script about how we handle hope after a traumatic event, how we process guilt, and how we often get in our own way when happiness seems inevitable. “Stillwater” had its theatrical release this summer and hopes to reach a larger audience with its DVD and Blu-ray release on October 26th.
Bill Baker (Academy Award® winner Matt Damon), an unemployed roughneck from Oklahoma, is half a world away from home in Marseille, France, visiting his estranged daughter Allison (Academy Award® nominee Abigail Breslin). What sounds like an amazing vacation and a way to reconnect is anything but that. Allison has spent the last five years in prison for the murder of her girlfriend. When a former professor tells her a story that, if proven true, could exonerate her, she implores Bill to get her legal team on the case. When her lawyer denies the request and suggests, Allison begins trying to cope with her situation; Bill decides to take matters into his own hands. Hoping that proving her innocence will not only grant Allison her freedom but also win Bill her love.
The always polite Bill isn’t the prototypical ugly American tourist, but he is utterly hopeless. When he visits Allison, his time is very regimented. He goes from the airport to the same hotel, the prison, the laundromat, and the lawyer’s office. Despite numerous trips in the more than half a decade since her initial arrest Bill has no interest in learning his way around the city, understanding its people or their language. Meaning that wherever Bill steps outside of his routine, he is quickly hindered by language barriers, cultural differences, and the complicated and brutal legal system. His first big break in helping Allison comes in from French actress Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her eight-year-old daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). While Virginie acts as Bill’s guide and translator on his quest for justice, Maya shows him exactly what he missed out on being a mostly absentee father.
Much like any fight against the legal system, “Stillwater” goes on too long, and there are occasional lapses in time as days become months or years. “Stillwater” is one part action thriller and one-part family drama, and the pace that works best for each type of story is at odds. While well constructed and wonderfully filmed, the thrills are too far apart to satisfy the crowd that came in hoping to see a midwestern American kicking ass. On the dramatic side, our four main actors all give outstanding performances. They are led by Damon, who is the best he has been since “The Martian.” He disappears into the rough around the edges Texas conservative. Damon’s chemistry with Cottin is good, but my favorite relationship is the one between Bill and Maya. Siauvaud is terrific as the adorably precocious Maya and gives one of my favorite performances by a child since Breslin took the world by storm in “Little Miss Sunshine.” Unfortunately, to fit in the legal and thriller aspects of the film, they take breaks from personal relationships. Worse, there are time jumps during crucial evolution points in these relationships. It is interesting to learn how they have grown, but you often feel like you have to catch up on what everyone is doing or going through instead of watching them grow.
“Stillwater” is an intelligent and well-crafted film with dazzling performances. It features powerful themes of regret, transgression, redemption, and proof that people are the same worldwide. No country is exempt from violence, corruption, bigotry, friendship, and love. You just have to make sure you find the right people wherever you go. Unfortunately, all of this promise is nearly torpedoed by uneven pacing that could leave audiences disengaged from either side of the plot. “Stillwater” is one script treatment away from being a fantastic Oscar-worthy film, but it will have to settle for a score of 4 out of 5.
Rating: R (Language)
Genre: Drama, Mystery & Thriller
Original Language: English
Director: Tom McCarthy
Producer: Steve Golin, Tom McCarthy, Jonathan King, Liza Chasin
Writer: Tom McCarthy, Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré
Release Date (Theaters): July 30th, 2021
Release Date (Streaming): August 19th, 2021
Release Date (DVD): October 26th, 2021
Runtime: 2h 20m
Distributor: Focus Features
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