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.
Tom McCarthy’s follow up to ‘Spotlight’ (give or take a kid’s film that wasn’t released in the UK) is a different kind of movie altogether, a genre bending drama that follows an American man who travels to France where his daughter is incarcerated, aiming to prove her innocence and get her released. It begins with this outline and initially it seems like it’s going to be a straightforward thriller as we follow Bill (Matt Damon) as he works his way around the shadier parts of Marseille to gather evidence after the lawyers refuse to investigate a new lead. However, ‘Stillwater’ has more complex ideas at heart and whilst this is the core story that the movie always returns too, it acts as a cover for a character study of a man who has never really forgiven himself for failing his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) in her younger years.
Sandwiched in the middle of the wrongful conviction narrative is a relationship that Bill forms with a French woman called Virginie (Camille Cottin) who ends up helping him with his investigations primarily as his ability to speak French extends not much beyond bonjour and merci. Some may find this diversion distracting but I liked the mix of genres and I felt there was a really strong mini drama in this part of ‘Stillwater’ that explored how Bill was attempting to make up for his own failures as a father by becoming a surrogate father to Virginie’s child Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). I also particularly liked the setting in Marseille, with McCarthy showing both sides of the port city, the seedy underbelly and the glamorous houses where the rich stay, with stunning views over the Mediterranean. It’s clearly well researched and it helps ‘Stillwater’ become more than just another ‘American in trouble abroad’ kind of movie.
There are several influences on McCarthy’s work here, with the most apparent being the Amanda Knox case which has striking similarities to the situation Allison finds herself in. Knox herself has criticised the film for ostensibly using the basis of her case to tell a fictional drama, but one in which it barely tries to conceal its true life origins. I’m also fairly certain McCarthy watched the outstanding Argentinian movie ‘The Secret in their Eyes’ before making this, as the chase at the football match and the way his private investigation unfolds has many of the hallmarks of that particular movie.
I’m sure everyone will have their own view about how the story ultimately unfolds and plays out and for my part, I enjoyed the journey enough that I would have been content however it concluded, but I did find some aspects of it a little abrupt and a bit of reading afterwards was required to confirm I’d fully understood the whole plot. I’d also add that some of the tonal shifts don’t always work as smoothly as intended, particularly when we start to switch back into crime movie mode for the final act which felt a little rushed, unusually so for a film that clocks in comfortably over 2 hours. Yet overall I was a huge fan of this movie, I liked Matt Damon’s performance, the setting and the intriguing blend of different story elements that satisfied different parts of my movie loving brain, and it’s a more than solid follow up to ‘Spotlight’ for Tom McCarthy.
Directed By: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, Camille Cottin, Lilou Siauvaud, Deanna Dunagan, William Nadylam, Idir Azougli and Anna Le Ny