- Emma Simmonds
- 2 August 2021
Matt Damon stars in a misjudged but occasionally charming thriller from Tom McCarthy
Evoking a Taken-style vendetta thriller while riffing, pretty insensitively, on a real-life murder case and throwing in some strangely enticing culture-clash comedy and romance, Stillwater is quite the curiosity. It's the seventh feature from Spotlight director Tom McCarthy; if the impeccable judgement he showed on that film is sorely lacking here, his latest is not without its charm.
A miscast Matt Damon plays ex-oil rig worker Bill Baker, a bible-reading and former heavy-drinking Oklahoman of few words, who is very much a fish out of water when he rocks up in Marseille to visit his imprisoned daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), a student who has been convicted of the murder of her roommate and sometime girlfriend, Lina. She's been maintaining her innocence and, when her lawyer refuses to pursue a new lead relating to the man Allison claims was there on the night of Lina's death, Bill takes it upon himself to track this elusive character down. With Bill unable to speak French, translations are provided by Virginie (Camille Cottin from Call My Agent!), a single mother and theatre actress that he meets at his hotel and whose daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) he cutely befriends, with the trio later growing close.
As McCarthy admitted to Vanity Fair, Stillwater takes inspiration from the story of American exchange student Amanda Knox, who spent nearly four years in an Italian prison for the murder of fellow student Meredith Kercher, before being acquitted of the crime. Knox recently spoke out against the film and there are moments where McCarthy's choice to draw on her ordeal feels particularly troubling. In addition, the director doesn't seem all that invested in the thriller aspects of the narrative, so very little tension is generated, while it feels like the character of Allison – whose actions are integral to the plot, but whose role is frustratingly peripheral – has been side-lined in her own story.
Damon plays Bill with a clenched jaw and a robotic walk and, although this initially proves distracting, once his double-act with young Siauvaud has been established the pair make a genuinely endearing odd couple, while seeing Cottin's softer side on screen is appealing too. But as Bill settles into his replacement family situation the film does get bizarrely waylaid. These pleasant and absorbing scenes make it easy to forget what the central premise is and when Bill makes an abrupt and slightly preposterous return to his quest it's jarring. Yet, even over a fairly epic runtime, with its beautiful cinematography, quiet passages and eccentric interludes Stillwater remains perversely watchable.
Available to watch in cinemas from Friday 6 August.