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stillwater review
An American roughneck relocates to Marseille hoping to clear his daughter of a murder charge.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Tom McCarthy

Starring: Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, Camille Cottin, Lilou Siauvaud, Deanna Dunagan, William Nadylam

stillwater poster

With movies as diverse as the Adam Sandler comedy The Cobbler, the Oscar winning Spotlight and last year's kiddie fare Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, it seemed as though director Tom McCarthy was settling into the role of a gun-for-hire. His latest, Stillwater, suggests that McCarthy has left behind his journeyman phase and returned to the theme that permeates his early work.

McCarthy's first few films - The Station Agent, The Visitor, Win Win - are about troubled, insular white men finding a new lease of life through a surrogate family. Hell, the theme can even be found in Pixar's Up, for which he wrote the storyline. In Stillwater, McCarthy returns to this theme, though here it's the meat in a mediocre legal drama cum thriller.

stillwater review

Matt Damon plays the latest of McCarthy's pent-up, taciturn, white male leads. He's Bill Baker, an Oklahoma roughneck who has spent the past five years working with his mother-in-law (Deanna Dunagan) to clear his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) from a murder charge. Convicted of killing her lesbian lover while studying in Marseille, Allison now resides in a prison in the French city, and with no job prospects at home, Bill relocates to France to be close to her.

When Allison's lawyer refuses to indulge some newly unearthed rumours of a young man having boasted of his involvement in the crime, Bill takes it upon himself to investigate the case. Bill doesn't speak a word of French however, and so enlists the aid of stage actress Virginie (Camille Cottin). Virginie is the sort of woman who can't help bringing home strays, and she seems attracted to the pain in Bill's eyes. Soon, Bill has moved into her home and become something of a surrogate father to her young daughter Maya (an excellent Lilou Siauvaud).

stillwater review

There's a stretch in the middle of Stillwater where it puts aside its plot and settles into the sort of "found family" drama that McCarthy initially established his reputation on. We just get to hang out with Bill, Virginie and Maya as they all find something they need in one another. It's similar to how Peter Weir hits pause on the thriller plotline of Witness to become a drama about a man finding kinship in an alien culture. Damon delivers one of his finest performances, and given his current status as the internet's embarrassing uncle, he's perfectly cast in the role of an ignorant American stomping through Marseille like Gene Hackman in The French Connection II.

McCarthy's film might be seen as an allegory for America's relationship with the world. Anyone who lives in a European city has likely interacted with American tourists and knows the delicate balancing act of enjoying (and if we're honest, envying) that curious naivete and decency Americans possess while avoiding the subjects of politics and religion. Americans are generally good-hearted people, but they consistently prop up governments that will happily destroy entire regions of the world to keep the price of oil or coffee beans down.

stillwater review

Damon's Bill feels American in a way few leading men in Hollywood movies do. He's a decent, God-fearing man, but his single-mindedness concerning the protection of his family is something to be wary of. At one point he appears to entertain the notion of framing an innocent immigrant in order to free his daughter, whose own innocence is left ambiguous (based on the Amanda Knox case, I suspect American viewers will assume Allison's innocence from the start, while the rest of us will keep an open mind).

When Stillwater returns to thriller territory in its final act, it feels deflating. It's not a particularly novel or cleverly structured thriller and it's quite derivative. It lifts not one but two major plot points from the Argentine Oscar winner The Secret in Their Eyes, and feels like a bit of a genre box-ticking exercise. But if you can swallow the unconvincing slices of thriller bread, the meat of McCarthy's latest parable of the kindness of strangers makes for a satisfying sandwich.

Stillwater is on UK/ROI VOD now.

2021 movie reviews