Six years after the release of the Oscar Best Picture-winning Spotlight, director Tom McCarthy has returned with another rumination on unfulfilled justice. Stillwater, partially (perhaps a bit dubiously) based on the true events of the Amanda Knox case, follows American oil worker Bill Baker (Damon) on a trip to the French town of Marseille, where his daughter Allison (Breslin) is midway through a prison sentence for a murder she supposedly did not commit. When Allison presents her father with potential new evidence that could help prove her innocence, Bill takes the situation into his own hands with the help of his new local acquaintance, Virginie (Cottin), and her young daughter, Maya (Siauvaud).
It becomes apparent rather quickly that McCarthy wants to see how much he can experiment with genre, and in fairness, Stillwater is sure to subvert expectations. Over the course of its bloated run time, this strange hodgepodge of a film clumsily shifts gears between a family/legal drama, a fish-out-of-water tale, a midlife romantic escapade, and something of a subdued vigilante thriller. It’s surprising how committed large swaths of it are to simply watching Damon exist in France, going through the motions of his day-to-day life in the country as his main plight and motivation get relegated to the background. Even more unexpected is the sustained comic energy here, aided by Damon’s earnest and affable performance. Though he appears to scream caricature of a good ol’ ’Merican boy from Oklahoma (just take a glance at his bald eagle/skull combo tattoo), he’s surprisingly thoughtful in his depiction of a down-home Southerner and plays Baker with an admirable air of emotional subtlety.
That same sense of focused tone does not carry over to the rest of the story, and the extended time spent on lighthearted domestic affairs with Virginie makes the pivots into thriller territory feel like they belong to a drastically different movie. Ironically, they seem like distractions from the story McCarthy actually seems interested in developing. Interactions between characters are engaging, particularly Bill’s sweet relationship developed with Maya, but the writing of the broader strokes of drama are belabored and contrived. Of course, there’re also the politics of Damon’s patriotic everyman, which are quickly ignored like an elephant in the room that the film would rather not address. When confronted with asking for help from a blatantly racist man, Bill insists he knows a lot of people like that and that’s just how it is. When asked if he voted for Trump, he says he had his right to vote stripped and doesn’t reveal anything further before the scene quickly moves on. The nuance needed to fully parse a character like Bill is regrettably absent, and it makes the film feel like it’s fumbling over itself.
This extends to the development of his relationship with Allison, which never finds the emotional leverage to make the drama really tick. Though scattered individual scenes are compelling, as a whole it feels too torn between what it’s ostensibly about and what it actually ends up focusing on. The story wraps up on a note that’s surprisingly meditative and cogent thematically, and in a better movie it would be genuinely thought-provoking. In this state, however, Stillwater leaves you thinking mostly about missed potential.
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