There’s a great movie lurking in this convoluted mess
By Diana Beechener
Bill Baker (Matt Damon: No Sudden Move) lives a fairly simple life. He works construction, cleaning up the devastation left in the wake of tornados in Oklahoma. He’s a guns, prayer, and patriotism kinda guy, which is why it’s odd that he must take frequent trips to the south of France.
Bill’s daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin: Zombieland Double Tap), was convicted of murdering her roommate while studying abroad. Now, Bill must journey to visit her as she serves her sentence in Marseille, bringing her treats from home and trying to force the courts to reconsider their verdict.
When a new clue emerges that might exonerate Allison, Bill decides to extend his stay in France and investigate himself. After a life of addiction and neglect, Bill believes saving his daughter is his last chance at redemption for a wasted life. Immersed among the people of Marseille, he sees parallels between his new home and the U.S. His views are challenged further when he meets Virginie (Camille Cottin: Call My Agent) and her daughter. The duo adopt Bill as their sort of pet American, helping him navigate a strange land.
Can Bill save his daughter? Or is true redemption found in the little moments in life?
Stillwater is a bargain for any moviegoer, in that it’s three movies jumbled into one. Sure, only two of those movies are interesting, but that’s the peril of bargain shopping.
Director Tom McCarthy (Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made) combines Taken, Roma, and Tender Mercies into a bloated mishmash of themes and ideas. Because the movie is heading in three different directions, careening from mystery to racial injustice drama to character study, it shortchanges what could have been a powerful film with great performances.
If a story about an American student held in a foreign prison after a murder conviction sounds familiar, that’s because McCarthy (who co-wrote the script) was inspired by the case of Amanda Knox. Though media is often inspired by real events, Knox has protested what she sees as a sensationalist take on her story. Whether you side with Knox or McCarthy, the murder investigation plotline is the weakest part of the film. It’s underdeveloped, with Breslin getting very little to do in her scant scenes.
The real meat of the movie comes when Bill is forced to live in a new culture and forge relationships with those around him. His tentative steps toward redemption are beautifully acted and incredibly tender. Bill discovering that he likes being a father, as he helps Virginie with her child and having his eyes opened to different ways of life is a fascinating story that is hamstrung by a trite mystery. By the time McCarthy tries to wrap all three storylines, the film has veered into the ridiculous.
Though the movie itself is an exercise in frustration, Damon’s performance is incredible. He embodies Bill, both physically and emotionally. He’s got the stiff upper-lip, gruff demeanor of a man who hides his feelings beneath a worn baseball cap. But he begins to melt as he finds a second chance in Marseille. These moments are thrown into jeopardy every time Bill tries to help his daughter, his “the ends justify the means” attitude leading him down a dark path. McCarthy should have focused more on Damon’s Bill learning to acclimate, because the humanity of the movie is in these moments.
Instead, Stillwater is a long, and exasperating movie, if only because you can see the better movie trapped within the larger plot. McCarthy can’t balance the weight of three hefty storylines and the film is ultimately uneven as a result. While Damon and Cottin both deliver excellent performances, it’s hard to watch them wasted in such an unfocused film.
Fair Drama * R * 139 mins.