A father travels from Oklahoma to France to help his estranged daughter, who is in prison for a murder she claims she didn't commit.
Inspired by the Meredith Kercher case from 2007, wherein a British student was murdered in Italy and her American roommate, Amanda Knox, was convicted before being released several years later (in what’s come to be regarded as a miscarriage of justice), Stillwater sees blue-collar Oklahoman Bill Baker (Matt Damon) travel to Marseilles, France, to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) in prison. She’s been convicted of murdering her lover, an Arab girl, and Baker becomes embroiled in schemes to prove her innocence.
First, let it be said that the Kercher/Knox connection is fairly tenuous. The story bears a superficial resemblance to that case, but beyond the idea of one girl dubiously convicted of killing another while studying abroad, it’s very different and a lot more conventional. In fact, while Stillwater (named for the podunk town from which Baker and Allison hail) works at the basic level of diverting crime drama, I ended up wishing that it did something less conventional and convenient with the material. That it had actually engaged with some of the themes it brings up and then seems to wilfully discard in favour of a more straightforward melodrama.
Knox has spoken out against the film and it’s easy to see why, given that the portrait of her incredibly complex story has been massively reduced by association with this Matt Damon vehicle, possibly causing people to misunderstand the real-world nuances. From the perspective of Stillwater as a film, it would’ve been better served by its makers distancing themselves as much as possible from the Kercher case, allowing it space to be considered as a piece of drama rather than analogy.
Damon gives a solid everyman performance as Baker, a stoic but wounded man with a history of drug abuse and family tragedy, trying to do his best for a daughter he’s failed in the past. The problem is that he’s too stoic, too square, and robotic. There’s a way to play an emotionally wracked man driven by a profound personal need in the face of overwhelming odds, and Damon is effective at making us feel that Baker is a decent but troubled guy, but in order for us to engage with his tragedy and mission at a higher level we needed more detail in the characterisation. We need some sense of his thoughts and feelings beyond how he ‘loves his daughter and is trying to be a better father’. He prays before every meal, so he’s clearly religious. Does that affect his thinking at all? Did it pose any difficulties when faced with his daughter’s lesbianism? Did it prejudice or even trouble him? The character ultimately feels like it was written for a different, less morally complex sort of movie. An action-thriller about a dad rescuing his little girl from moustache-twirling Eurotrash, perhaps; not a sensitive, thoughtful drama about the politics surrounding cultural clashes and a difficult legal case.
The story hinges on two coincidences, one minor and major. The former I can reveal without spoiling anything. While staying at a hotel, Bill befriends a Frenchwoman called Virginie (Camille Cottin), and her nine-year-old daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). Virginie helps him translate a note written in French and then becomes involved with him and his quest to free Allison from jail. I got the feeling that something like that could only happen in the movies, and though Baker’s burgeoning relationship with Virginie is sometimes moving (especially his connection with the adorable moppet Maya), it starts to feel like a distraction from the crime plot, which is presumably the reason Stillwater was made. I found myself asking what happened to Allison during one of several scenes where Bill and Virginie spend time together as friends, then lovers.
I suppose it comes down to whom the story of Stillwater is really about: Bill or Allison? In the end, it seems like it’s more about Bill, and Allison’s just there to motivate the morally complex journey he goes on, like a western driven by the hero’s loss of his loved one to bandits. In this way, the film chooses the least interesting approach to the material, forcing it into a standard crime-drama mould. If I sound like I’m being extremely critical of Stillwater, bear in mind that it’s still a well-constructed crime drama. Although the romance sometimes feels superfluous, we’re never far away from the development of the main plot thread. It’s compelling on its own terms, but when when you connect a film with such a complex case and allude to massively important, relevant social issues, a burden is placed on the film which it can’t sustain at that level.
For example, a scene where Virginie assists Bill in interrogating a French café owner comes to an end when the owner reveals blatant, ugly racism, offering to perjure himself in incriminating any Arab boy so that Baker’s daughter can go free, because of his belief Arabs are taking over Marseilles. The situation causes a temporary rift between Bill and Virginie, due to Virginie’s disgust at the racism and Bill’s relative indifference to it. But then the issue is dropped. We don’t get any further discussion of or allusion to Bill’s feelings about race, nor the wider race issue in a case like his daughter’s. Perhaps most bizarrely, press coverage of the case is brought up a couple of times but otherwise completely ignored, even though characters state it had a huge impact on Allison’s trial, and Bill ended up punching a British reporter. So where are the scenes exploring that? Nowhere. We don’t even really see a journalist at any point.
I said earlier that the story hinges on two coincidences, and though I can’t reveal the second one, lest I spoil the film, I can say it involves a football match and is a real doozy, setting off a string of conveniences that stay just this side of laughable but weaken the film’s credibility as social comment/’inspired by a true story’-ness. This is where Stillwater really approaches generic action-thriller territory, and though it’s somewhat suspenseful because of the skill involved with staging and scripting, it’s again at a disappointingly basic level. There’s a ceiling which Stillwater just doesn’t break through, and that’s a shame because the performances and presentation are admirable. Breslin is believable as a traumatised but not altogether trustworthy person, Damon does his thing of playing a decent but out-of-his-dept everyman, and Cotton’s fine in a role that doesn’t ask all that much of her. I’m not convinced that Stillwater is a film one needs to see in a cinema, and it’s certainly not worth trying to engage with it as any sort of commentary on the Kercher/Knox case, or any of the social issues it uses essentially as window dressing, but it’s a compelling enough melodrama.
USA | 2021 | 140 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Tom McCarthy.
writers: Tom McCarthy, Macus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain & Noé Debré.
starring: Matt Damon, Camille Cottin, Abigail Breslin, Lilou Siauvaud, Deanne Dunagan, William Nadyla, Idir Azougli & Anna Le Ny.