North Texas Daily

Dark ‘Stillwater’ explores murky depths with unexpected grace

Dark ‘Stillwater’ explores murky depths with unexpected grace

August 07
14:30 2021

“I’m trying to get my little girl out of jail — that’s all I give a damn about!”

“You sound very American right now.”

“Good. I am!”

Bill Baker (Matt Damon) is a man with an empire of dirt. He’s been working odd jobs since his oil job laid him off six months ago, his town is dying and his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), is locked up for supposedly killing her girlfriend in Marseilles. Making friends with Virginie (Camille Cottin), a local actress and her daughter, Bill sets out to find any evidence of her innocence in a place he is unwelcome in and hostile to. 

“Stillwater” is a movie about a lot of things: how the world views Americans in the age of Trump, the role of prejudice in determining innocence and whether a person can truly break from their actions to become someone better. Unlike most movies I’ve described with that sentence, Tom McCarthy’s successor to “Spotlight” is mostly proficient in how it goes about mining these ideas for the story. It is anchored by strong performances from everyone in the cast, sharp writing and a good trade of tensions for human moments.

While Damon and the rest of the cast could’ve made Baker a simple, ugly stereotype, but Baker ends up one of Damon’s most compelling characters in a good while. He isn’t simply Damon’s famous spy reborn as a southern-fried everyman — he’s a hardened, regretful man. His self-deprecating, hard-headed exterior belies a somber interior, one which seeks to break out of the mess his life has been and rebuild it. He may be arrogant and ignorant to a fault, but he recognizes the potential to do better and pursues it.

Effectively, the movie’s other lead, Cottin, plays Virginie as a measured, sensitive artist who somewhat falls into the stereotype of Europeans being looser with their romances, but also has great chemistry with Baker. While her character is in service to Baker’s own development, she still gets her own characterization and furthers the film’s focus on human development and prejudice. 

The relationship she and Baker have with her daughter, Maya (Lilou Siavaud), is also adorable and the script is smart in how it’s run through the emotional spectrum. 

By the way, that script was written by four different people, including McCarthy and two Frenchmen, but the story is cohesive and complete in how it’s paced, presented and what emotions it evokes. While the climax of the first and third acts are very much thrillers, “Stillwater” excels when adding layers to Bill, his acclimation to Marseilles and his interaction with Virginie and Maya. While it does fumble the climax somewhat, the ending pulls everything together to create a working-class tragedy, almost Shakespearian in its emotional precision. 

Still, “Stillwater” sinks a little in its third act, in which it becomes a truly grim thriller and Bill is pushed to his breaking point when he takes what he believes is the best path to his daughter’s freedom. There are some character motivations that become somewhat head-scratching, with one retired, implied to be sleazy policeman suddenly taking an interest in Bill’s activities. It’s not hard to get around, but there’s also a very ambiguous situation regarding the fate of one character that feels a little too convenient and vague. 

The film is also somewhat inconsistent when deciding which lines of French receive subtitles and it’s a bit bothersome.

There’s also some controversy concerning the plot being loosely, yet very obviously inspired by the injustice Amanda Knox suffered during the shoddy investigation into the murder of Meredith Kercher. It doesn’t take as much as you would expect from Knox’s story, but McCarthy, Damon and the other writers should’ve reached out to Knox beforehand if the inspiration was that transparent. Some of the storytelling choices made, when taking the real-life case into account, seem somewhat reckless. Honestly, she has a right to be pissed and her thoughts on the film are worth reading on her Twitter account.

Taken as a story, however, “Stillwater” treads its grimy system with sensitivity and intelligence. It is Damon’s best performance in a while, a good successor to McCarthy’s 2015 award-winner and holds up independent of its real-life catalyst. 

Final rating: 3.5/5

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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