Review: 'Stillwater' (2021) Dir. Tom McCarthy
The premise of a father seeking justice for his daughter in France may trigger memories of action/thriller 'Taken', but 'Stillwater' plays out as a gentle paced cultural mystery/drama...
Bill Baker (Damon), a single parent and oil worker from Stillwater, Oklahoma, travels frequently to Marseille, France to visit his daughter Allison (Breslin), currently fives years into a nine year prison sentence for murder.
When Allison presents a new lead for Bill to pass to her legal team, they turn down the lead due to being unable to re-open a case. Not wanting to accept her fate to remain in prison, Bill sets out to find the lead himself across Marseille.
In a place he does not fully understand, faced with cultures and language barriers, Bill finds help from local lady Virginie (Cottin) who shares the same hotel. The pair traverse the city and start to track down the fragmented evidence that could finally free Allison...
A film of two genres that, for the most part, work well together, if not always sure what is truly wants to be. From the outset it begins as a cultural drama; Abigail Breslin is Allison Baker, a young girl locked away in a French jail for a crime she did not commit. With funds running dry and the case closed, all she can do is rely on the frequent visits of her father, Bill, Travelling alone from America to France, mixing with culture and language he doesn't understand, Bill nevertheless manages to keep up his visits and be a dedicated father as much as he can.
Matt Damon is Bill Baker, the father, who plays this role wonderfully quiet and restrained. Damon is presented as a true all-American blue-collar oil worker with baseball cap, goatee and shades who would be one step away from voting for Donald Trump were his conviction not preventing him, he loves country music and owns a shotgun and a Glock. But Bill doesn't act how you would probably expect with these traits. He works to live, and he lives for his family, be that now a dwindling circle around him. He puts his faith in God, and does everything he can for Allison as much as his emotional and mental state allows.
Damon doesn't need great dramatic material in order to prove how good a dramatic actor he is. He plays Bill as ordinary as the next working man you encounter - he enjoys sport, enjoys his job and enjoys subs and fizzy drinks. Yet the relationships he forges and battles to maintain are the real crux of his character, and thanks to solid direction and story co-written by by Spotlight's Tom McCarthy, Damon has the right material here to make this a story all about his journey.
Due to the gentle balance of genres, and be it more focused on character than any action, Damon holds the film together because you are fully invested in his character and his journey.
Abigail Breslin's daughter Allison struggles to let go of the past hurt in order to try and let her father in, as well as battling to prove her own innocence in a murder case. Alongside Breslin, Camille Cottin is Virginie, a single mother living for her daughter Maya (a sweet little Lilou Siauvaud) who crosses paths with Damon on the quest to help Allison. Breslin and Cottin are two very different and talented actors and so present very different sorts of characters, each equally important to Bill for very different reasons, and each chips away at his armour to see both himself and the world in a different light.
Because of this, it's not just a story about hunting down the leads and evidence that could prove his daughter's innocence for Bill. It's a story - nay, a journey - about opening up to the wider world and what it can offer. It's a very pleasant and cultural looking film that embraces what Marseille offers as a city, from music to sport to recreation.
Yet when the genre veers away from drama to thriller, the red mist comes down as we continue the hunt for the real criminals. Since the justice system can't help, and the cultural / language barriers are always present, Bill has to take some matters into his own hands no matter how dirty they get. But with the relationships forged, it's this balance of knowing what to do that is right and wrong at the expense of risking others.
These darker moments, especially during the final act, make for some interesting viewing, again rooted around Damon and his portrayal. Thankfully it doesn't go full Liam Neeson, and Damon keeps Bill as normal, human and conflicted as possible while being open to the warmth, support and love flowering around him.
A little longer than it needs to be, 'Stillwater' is still an engrossing and nice looking drama that is grounded by Matt Damon as it flits between genres towards an effective outcome.
'Stillwater' is a co-production between Participant, DreamWorks Pictures, Slow Pony, Anonymous Content, 3dot Productions and Supernatural Pictures