Six years ago, actor and director Tom McCarthy took home the Oscar for best original screenplay and best picture for “Spotlight”. The all star ensemble that includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Stanley Tucci is considered by myself and many critics as the best film of 2015. It’s been a long wait for McCarthy to embrace us with his newest film, but after a delay due to the pandemic and theater closures. Here we are with the human drama and crime thriller “Stillwater”.
McCarthy’s film which he writes, directs and produces isn’t based on the story of Amanda Knox. But director Tom McCarthy said while he was inspired by Amanda’s case that he assures “Stillwater”, is heavily fictionalized. Since the films release at the Cannes Film Festival, where it received a five minute standing ovation. Knox has voiced her opinions about the film negatively and argues that it profits off of her trauma.
In “Stillwater”, Matt Damon turns in one of his finest performances as Bill Baker. Damon’s Bill is an oil worker from Stillwater, Oklahoma who like many is facing economic struggle. He supports Trump without officially saying it and stands with a hulking build and thick arms with an American eagle tattoo. Sporting a goatee and a beat-up trucker baseball cap, he has a face of someone who hasn’t smiled in years.
Bill has been picking up labor work as a construction worker, ever since he was laid off from his oil rig job. It’s obvious that he has been knocked down by life and has endured many hardships, with many of them from his own making. But Bill is hoping to make things right with his daughter by freeing her from prison and in the process finding inner peace and redemption of his own.
McCarthy drops us right into the middle of the story and let’s it all unfold throughout it’s lengthy 2 hour and 20 minute running time. When we first see Bill he is on a plane bound for Marseilles, Paris. When he arrives at his motel (a product placement for Best Western), it’s clear that he’s been here many times before. No. This isn’t another Jason Bourne flick. Instead Damon plays a dad who has been estranged from his grown daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin “Little Miss Sunshine”) for a lot of her life.
Although they’ve grown reasonably close under life changing circumstances after Allison, who was studying abroad, was convicted of killing her roommate and lover. Allison has maintained her innocence, but she’s been in a Paris prison for four years as she gets wind of a new lead in her case and asks Bill to deliver a letter to her attorney to reopen the case. With no hope of the case being reopened, Bill takes it upon himself to investigate and clear his daughters name. At this point, “Stillwater” sounds like the next action vehicle for Mark Wahlberg, Tom Cruise or even Liam Neeson. Or you might see the hulking Damon spring into action and start taking names, but “Stillwater” goes on a much more authentic tone.
As Bill struggles to overcome the language barrier, he strikes up a friendship with a kindly French stage actress named Virginie (Camille Cottin), who agrees to act as Bill’s translator and eventually invites to Bill to stay with her and her adorable 8-year-old daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), who takes an instant liking to Bill and gives him something of a second chance to be a father figure.
The films ads and trailers have tended to showcase “Stillwater” into a thriller and giving us a look into the films more straight-forward, thriller infused first act. Once the second act begins, the film becomes a drama that sees Bill working to evolve a dynamic in his makeshift family with Virgine and Maya. Elements of Bill and Virginie’s relationship are as predictable as it comes, but these two come from different worlds and we believe their relationship. Seeing how the majority of the second and the third act is centered on Bill, Virginie and Maya. It slows down the film considerably (more so in the second act), but it gives “Stillwater” it’s best sequences and makes it easier to buy into how McCarthy uses their bond to explore the ways that people can impact one other.
Matt Damon’s performance is compelling and gives Bill a full character arc, by making a commanding presence out of an average man who is looking for redemption and learning how to live with your mistakes. As Virginie, Camille Cottin is vibrant, warm and gives a beautiful and empathetic performance as Virginie. Lilou Siauvaud as Maya is adorable and a superstar in the making.
“Stillwater” juggles different genres that leaves it’s lengthy runtime, oddly feeling rushed at times. With serious issues being glossed over, that includes a plot turn of character endangerment that just comes and goes much too quickly. Or how McCarthy and his co-writers present allusions to Europe’s class and race struggle. McCarthy suggests how it mirrors that of America, but never follows through it.
“Stillwater” isn’t perfect and I hope it’ll be recognized come Oscar season (especially for Matt Damon’s lead performance). But just as he did with his Oscar winner, McCarthy is a master of inserting character drama within the framework of a crime thriller. McCarthy lays on the suspense and brings some heart wrenching moments in a provocative, stirring, enthralling and ambitious affair.
Don’t go in expecting a straight thriller (as the trailers suggest) and while it hits some rough waters, give it a chance. You’ll come out of it with a great performance from Matt Damon, while McCarthy’s direction feels like a throwback to films of the 70’s. Presented as a deeply personal human drama that is disguised as a crime thriller. “Stillwater” is one of those movies that we don’t get very often.
GRADE: ★★★★☆ (4 out of 5)