Unless you were living under a rock, it was hard to forget about the Amanda Knox case. A story in which a young American girl was falsely accused of killing her roommate, and how the Italian police manipulated a confession out of her to use against her in court to lock her behind bars. It was a devastating event filled with twists and turns, and enough drama to fill a runtime for a mini-series on television, let alone a film. And while Tom McCarthy’s new film Stillwater isn’t a historical retelling of Knox’s story, it uses the bones for the infamous case, moving the action to the south of France, to create a story about father’s redemption as not just a parent, but as a man. Though that may sound good on paper, it presents two stories that work at first, but sadly fall apart in the last act.
Bill Baker (Matt Damon) is a simple man. An out of work oil rig worker from Stillwater, Oklahoma, he wakes up in the morning, takes odd jobs in construction and tornado cleanup, takes care of his family, makes his dinner, says his daily prayers, and does it all again the next day. His music is classic country on an old iPod mini and his wardrobe consists of many flannel shirts. So when he goes to Marseille, France to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), who’s been wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of her roommate, Bill sticks out like an ugly American. After new information surfaces that could free Allison of her crimes, Bill takes this information to his daughter’s lawyer, who is unable to investigate given that the information is hearsay. It’s within this moment Bill takes matters into his own hands but doesn’t know the language, despite visiting Allison dozens of times over five years of her incarceration. Enter Virginie (Camille Cottin), a single mother who is staying next door at the hotel Bill is staying at in Marseille. She helps Bill translate all the new information he is learning to free Allison, piecing together one clue at a time. They form a bond, even extending to a charming relationship between Bill and Virginie’s daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). Thus, this American male is able to find something special to hold onto besides his daughter’s questionable freedom.
But Bill isn’t a perfect man. Per conversations with Allison, we learn he wasn’t the best father to her. Therefore, when she was deciding on where to go for college, she wanted to be as far away from him as possible, and in doing so, she ended up in prison for life. Over the course of Stillwater, we see Bill trying to make up for his fractured past with his daughter in two ways, desperately trying to find the real killer, and taking care of Maya as the father she never had, and becoming involved with Virginie. This is when the movie is at its best when we are watching Bill slowly learn from the sins to improve upon a happier life. After all, per the conversation with Allison’s lawyer, it would take a miracle for Allison to get out, so Bill and Allison have to learn to accept the sentence and move on. It’s heartbreaking to see this father try so hard to protect his own, frustrated by every decision made and not made in the case, knowing there isn’t much he can do to change the past. But it’s harrowing to see him try to piece some form of a life together through such tragedy.
McCarthy, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter for Spotlight, is able to weave in a domestic drama inside a crime thriller pretty effortlessly by relying on Damon’s Bill to ground everything happening on the screen. Take another McCarthy film, The Visitor, in which a quiet man living a simple life forms a friendship with a young couple, only for the male of the couple to be captured and detained because he’s illegal. McCarthy uses these vessels to speak not only to topical issues like immigration and false imprisonment but shows the emotional toll these events can have on people who are going through them and how helpless their friends and family are in getting them released. But while The Visitor is consistent in keeping its story grounded, while Stillwater abandons everything it sets up in the first two acts for an ending that just doesn’t fit with what has been going on for the two hours before it. It turns into a spy thriller, one that gives us unsatisfying results to Bill’s journey as well as Allison’s resolution. By tethering itself to the Knox case, Stillwater feels like it needs to finish that storyline rather than be a subversion and just use the base of that story to tell something different. With three other writers credited on the screenplay alongside McCarthy, someone should’ve been able to stick the landing to this one better than they did.
Beyond its dissatisfying ending, the highlight of the film is Matt Damon’s performance as Bill. While it takes a minute to adjust to his version of an Oklahoman accent, he controls the screen with so much emotion and tenderness, you can’t help but root for him even though he might not be someone you relate to in real life. He leans more conservative, as hinted at by a couple of interactions with Virginie’s friends. But it’s not what defines Bill, and Damon presents a character you can’t judge based on their political ideology, especially given what’s going on in his life. He’s got a good heart and wants to do the right thing. With this, Damon delivers one of his best performances in years. His chemistry with Camille Cottin is comfortable and romantic as if these two actors have been working together for years. It’s also a relationship built without labels, but based on their admiration and affection for the other, thus it feels organic and not forced. Lilou Siauvaud’s turn as Maya is a great balance to the film, as she is able to bring out a side of Bill he’s normally never shown. Her scenes with Damon are touching and the emotional core of the film. The one performance that feels out of place is Abigail Breslin. A fine actress in many other projects, but she isn’t really given much to do even though this film is centered around her character’s decisions. She’s mostly here to drive Damon’s story, which is as understandable as it is frustrating.
With a great lead performance and a captivating two-hour story, Stillwater could’ve been one of the best films of the year so far. But the extra twenty minutes of runtime brings it down to the point where it leaves you wondering if the journey was worth getting to the destination we are presented with. McCarthy is a talented writer, director who seems so comfortable when his films are grounded and so out of his element when they are elevated. If he wanted to make a movie about Amanda Knox, he should’ve done that. Instead, the ending limits this film from reaching its full potential. He just couldn’t stick the landing on this one, and that’s such a shame.
Focus Features will release Stillwater only in theaters on July 30.
Photo: Jessica Forde / Focus Features