Stories about people who are wrongfully accused and convicted of crimes are always compelling stories. Tom McCarthy’s new film Stillwater tackles this subject that stars Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, and Camille Cottin about an out-of-work oil rig worker from Oklahoma who finally sets out to prove his daughter’s innocence in France as she’s doing her second year in prison. McCarthy forgoes the political and social elements that seem to be evident in the trailer and follows the complex story of the relationship of this father and daughter who have a strained relationship. It’s a beautifully shot movie with a stellar performance from Damon in perhaps his most stoic and nuanced role yet.
McCarthy has always had a way of telling amazing stories with brilliant characters. His debut with The Station Agent was heart-warming while tackling some difficult subjects of depression and suicide, which then led him to create the story of Pixar’s Up, which then resulted in his big award-winning movie Spotlight. It’s no doubt he has a knack for fully developing characters that tug the heartstrings and bringing a wide gamut of emotions to the forefront. Here in Stillwater, it’s more subtle as Damon plays Bill Baker, a countryman who has little to say, has had a troubled past but loves his family and will do anything to save his daughter.
Stillwater follows Bill Baker (Damon) as he travels to Marseille, France to visit his estranged daughter who was studying abroad. She was convicted of murder and has been convicted and serving time for two years there. The story is very loosely based on the real-life story of Amanda Knox who was wrongfully convicted of murder. Bill is a Stranger In A Strangeland in France. He sticks out like a sore thumb, but he manages to make friends easily due to his brute honesty. He visits his daughter Allison in prison where she gives him a letter to give to her lawyer about her case to prove her innocence. When her French lawyer tells Bill it doesn’t matter and there’s nothing anyone can do to re-open her case and investigate, he takes it upon himself through a series of clues to bring the real killer to justice.
From what seems like a story that is open and shut is anything but crystal clear as Bill slowly figures out. McCarthy could have played the political or social card in many sequences, but he rather explores the character dynamics of Bill. At first, Bill is closed off and is a by-the-book man, who doesn’t seem interested in anything by seeing his daughter, but while spending more time in Marseille, he meets a woman named Virgine and her young daughter Maya, who all grow fond for each other. It’s a natural, organic relationship that blossoms over time as Bill comes out of his shell and becomes the man he desperately wanted to be in his younger years. He learns French, the culture, and rights the wrongs that he and his daughter talk about when they were younger.
It’s not all happy and sweet though as those demons rear their ugly heads inside Bill and Allison that complicate the investigation and Bill’s willingness to take things into his own hands that might risk his life and his daughter’s life. It’s easy to root for Damon’s Bill Baker here. He is constantly doing the right thing, even if it blurs the lines of a bad path. His heart is in the right place. And his performance is stunning and never overplayed. McCarthy’s visual eye for France captures all elements of its stunning picturesque seaside landscape and also its low-income projects as well, revealing a nice contrast of the beauty of both. McCarthy’s acting stint in HBO’s The Wire certainly helped here.
Even though Amanda Knox has denounced this film, McCarthy took a general, vague true story and adapted it for the big screen to tell this new story of this strained relationship between Bill and his daughter Allison. This is very much Bill’s story to tell and how perhaps his limited view on the world was opened up to something bigger and brighter through this ordeal, which makes for an amazing movie. Stillwater is excellent and has one of Matt Damon’s best performances. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!