In Reviews

October 26th, 2021




For director Tom McCarthy he’s carved out his own style of the “ripped from the headlines” type film, which earned him a Best Picture win for Spotlight, the Boston Globe breaking the catholic church abuse scandal. His follow-up is Stillwater, a fish out of water story, about a father doing what he can to prove his daughter’s innocence. It has a similar approach of making it about an investigation, but instead of it being about journalists doing the hard work to break the news, it’s about a singular person with little resources, but ready to sacrifice it all. Although it’s not as thrilling as one might expect, there’s a gentle hand in the approach to Stillwater, ushered by a trio of strong performances, led by Matt Damon, in this emotional and engaging drama.

The news story that Stillwater is lightly based on is the Amanda Knox saga, the American woman that was accused of murdering her roommate, but although that may be a launching point, the plot of Stillwater focuses more on the people impacted by an event of this nature. Damon stars as Bill Baker, a goateed man from Stillwater, Oklahoma, not armed with much of an education, working jobs at oil rigs when he can, or helping clean up debris from homes hit by tornadoes. His daughter Allison Baker (Abigail Breslin) is currently serving her fourth out of a ten year prison sentence in Marseille, France, where she has been convicted for the murder of her then girlfriend. While visiting, Bill receives new information from Allison about who the real killer could have been. With this little information and his determination, Bill becomes his own private investigator, connecting with Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), as they help him in his journey to find the truth.

Unlike the way McCarthy did with Spotlight, what makes Stillwater work well is the amount of restraint shown in between the lines. The screenplay, written by McCarthy, Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noe Debre isn’t going for the loud shouting melodramatic moments, but instead is going for honesty in the situation. Damon’s character is not filled with seething rage. He’s a man impacted by his past mistakes, not there for Allison before, and now limited by everything in this situation. Limited by the language barrier, the little trust his daughter has for him, being foreign to his surroundings, and the concrete legal decision making it impossible to reopen the case. The first half seems like Stillwater will be a charging approach, about a father breaking rules to prove his daughter’s innocence, but instead it slows down, turning into a narrative about a man finding patience and redemption with a new love in his life of Virginie and Maya.

That’s not to say Stillwater is perfect, it may be lacking a bit of that building thrills that Spotlight had, but McCarthy is not a stranger to making accurate choices in his narrative approach. In the 1960’s and 70’s Stillwater would be more in line with a Sidney Lumet picture or Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces or the narrative that focuses on the man of America. The performance from Matt Damon is sneaky good, wearing his sleeveless shirts well, invoking a southern drawl, and channeling a character he’s never played before. The highlight and often scene stealing performance, however, would certainly be from Abigail Breslin. Her delivery as Allison is layered, as a woman in fear for her future behind bars, desperate for someone to empathise with her, and aware of what truly happened on the fateful night. Although Damon is solid from start to finish, his best moments are when he’s working off bigger performances such as Breslin’s.

With Stillwater, I’m reminded of why I used to love watching episodes of Law & Order for so long, where inspiration is not always advocating or relitigating a trial, but the minor details still make for a drama audiences can’t step away from. Stillwater succeeds at all of that, only this time Matt Damon is playing the supportive father with a nuanced and skilled approach for getting one more chance, which feels like something he had yet to play till now. The final runtime is too long, including a final sequence which feels unnecessary, but It all comes together in another well crafted film from Tom McCarthy. It may not reach the level of Spotlight, but Stillwater is a good, old-fashioned cinematic drama. It’s about family, it’s about survival, and it’s ultimately about how difficult life can truly be.



Written by: Leo Brady

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