I went into Stillwater with the expectation that this was going to be like a lot of the Matt Damon-type action-thrillers. The stuff he does with Paul Greengrass like The Bourne Series or Green Zone. I guess I must’ve misremembered the trailer after watching it. (I didn’t, they made this movie look like it was Taken, every punch thrown in the movie is shown in the trailer) Stillwater is nothing like those movies, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Director and writer Tom McCarthy works alongside fellow writers Thomas Bidegain, Noe Debre, and Marcus Hinchey for a film that follows much closer to the drama/thriller path.
It stars Matt Damon as Bill Baker, Abigail Breslin as Allison Baker, Camille Cottin as Virginie, Lilou Siauvaud as Maya, and Deanna Dunagan as Sharon. For a film that’s somewhat globetrotting, it’s a very small and contained story. Bill Baker visits his daughter Allison in a prison in Marseille, France for the murder of a former lover. There are plenty of scenes showing the hardships and tribulations that Bill goes through in his life in Stillwater, Oklahoma. There’s a huge difference in lighting, tone, and the look of things between the two places on flim.
Through his travels, Bill meets Virginie, the person staying next door to him at his hotel. He helps her daughter, Maya, get back into her room while her mother is out. Allison has one last hail Mary for her sentence before they’re out of options. Except her lawyer won’t take the case. Bill lies to his daughter and takes the detective work into his own hands.
After that, we verge into spoilers, and this is one you have to see for yourself.
Narratively Speaking, This One Is Different
From a screenwriting perspective and narratively, this one was very much not your normal Hollywood film. The action starts and stops. It goes from touching familial moments to tense and stomach turning scenes. Nothing overly violent or horrible happens, but you can tell what’s going on in the background. In that way, a lot of the acts are implied and left for the audience to imagine. There’s a couple scenes where Bill gets roughed up, but they don’t linger too long.
The time jump in the middle section of the film doesn’t feel forced and it makes sense from a character development standpoint why Bill would stick around in Marseille for his daughter. The entire time, I was thinking “Is this based on or inspired by a true story?”
It’s not. Which makes it even weirder to me. It feels a lot like the Amanda Knox case. This feels like something that could easily happen in real life. Sure, there are some HUGE coincidences, but that happens in life sometimes. And when one man is searching for the answer to his daughter’s case, they exhaust all options.
At the point where you think Bill is going to make the right choices and go on with his new life, he reverts back and makes one last horrible choice. So in that way, the flaws that he has and the wounds he has, catch up to him in a big way.
Matt Damon Highlights And Carries Stillwater
This is very much Matt Damon’s movie. Without a performance like his, it wouldn’t work nearly as well. Surrounding him, is a cast that also works well and in particular Camille Cottin and Lilou Siauvaud as Virginie and Maya. These two offer a new life for Bill that he accepts, but with a catch. Abigail Breslin as Allison is mysterious, and it always seems like she has outside motivations. She’s a broken individual that when the big reveal happens, you see why.
These four carry the film through it’s twists and turns. But Matt Damon in particular gives a performance that’s ultra-macho but deeply reflective of masculine society in the US. There’s plenty of European-US juxtaposition in this film and Bill Baker is a walking embodiment of it. Sure, he can work construction and watch Oklahoma State football in France, but the macho cowboy way he goes about things doesn’t work as well when searching for a missing person.
It’s really the highlight of the film to see how his character changes so much over the course, but at the end of the film, doesn’t really change at all. In one scene, he balances his old life, his new life, and another secret new life he builds all in one motion. It’s a magnificent performance that’s deserving of accolades.
Stillwater Suffers From Pacing Issues However
The pacing of the story suffers a bit, especially in the latter sections. The middle section of the story swallows up a considerable section of screentime. It bounces back and forth from drama/romance to thriller/crime and it’s sort of jarring. I can get why the filmmakers chose to do this, because it fits along with the fish-out-of-water storyline and comparison on the US to the rest of the world. But it really makes the plot and pacing suffer. Some scenes are frenetic and buzzing, while others are light and tender.
It could have done with some trimming around the edges. The film comes in at 2 hours, 20 minutes and about 20 minutes of that could have been lopped off to have a more brisk film. Finally, on pacing, the end of the film is abrupt and you’re not given answers to a whole lot. I’m not sure how Police work in France, but they don’t really do their due diligence in this film.
It’s hard to invest in the story of Allison, when you really have a lot of the answers in front of you. Her writing is blunt and she doesn’t really feel like a redeemable character that you want to root for.
See Stillwater For Yourself And For Damon’s Almost Transformation
The ending of the film is haunting and makes up for a bit of issues with the pacing of the whole thing. It’s almost dream-like in the way that it’s shot and presented. So you’re not too sure what the process and thoughts are like in Bill Baker’s head. He puts two and two together with his daughter’s case, but the effects of the whole thing are for the audience to decide.
The moments between Bill Baker and Virginie and Maya are what you’re here for. When I walked in to see Stillwater, I’m sure that’s not what I would have been thinking. The touching moments between the highly American man and a French family are worth watching this movie. If you can get around the sometimes awkward pacing and the A-Plot about Allison and her case feeling like it should have been second billing to Bill and his remade image of family, then you’ll find a film that’s enjoyable.
Matt Damon gives a great performance full of nuance and commentary in Bill Baker. He carries the burden of the film, the burden of his daughter’s case, and more. His performance is worth watching the film for.
Stillwater releases in theaters July 30th, 2021.