Stillwater feels like three movies, which kind of makes sense since it has four writers. One is a family drama about a dedicated father trying to get his estranged daughter out of prison. The other is a love story about a middle-aged man getting a second chance at romance and parenthood. The third is a crime thriller about an antihero who crosses the line in pursuit of justice, or at least what he sees as justice. Stillwater never feels tonally inconsistent, however. All of the subplots are connected by tragedy and the bonds of family, culminating in an emotional powerhouse.
Matt Damon puts on a little weight and a goatee as Bill Baker, an oil worker who travels from Oklahoma to Marseille to see his incarcerated daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin). Mirroring the Amanda Knox case, Allison was convicted of murder while studying overseas. Villainized in the press, Allison insists that she’s innocent. Bill believes her, but the language barrier and legal system are more than he can handle alone. He finds an ally and perhaps something more in a local named Virginie (Camille Cottin). Bill also develops a close rapport with her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), learning from his past mistakes as a father.
Despite being in the spotlight for twenty-five years now, we sometimes need a reminder of how appealing Damon is. He delivers one of his deepest performances as a man with a rock-solid exterior, but there’s so much more going on underneath. Breslin gives the most complex performance of her career and like Breslin before her, Siauvaud may be a child star with even greater things on the horizon. Cottin is the real discovery here, at least for American audiences. Better known in France, Cottin made her English debut in Robert Zemeckis’s Allied. She brings warmth to every scene in Stillwater, and with Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci coming out later this year, Cottin is poised to be a breakthrough star of 2021.
Director Tom McCarthy’s most famous work is the Best Picture-winning Spotlight. Stillwater shares more in common with his most underrated work, The Visitor. Like that drama, Stillwater also deals with being a foreigner, finding love in unlikely places, and a difficult legal system. Where the main characters in The Visitorwere all sympathetic, though, Stillwater goes to a grayer territory. Although Allison claims she’s innocent, there’s still a shadow of doubt throughout. Guilty or innocent, how far is Bill willing to go to protect his daughter? Will he risk his freedom and the new family that he’s built with Virginie? Whatever happens, it’s unlikely that everything will work out.
Stillwater keeps us guessing, building to a nail-biting climax that reflects Hitchcock’s classic rule: a bomb going off isn’t suspenseful, but the audience knowing that a bomb might go off is genuine suspense. What follows is a dramatically satisfying conclusion that leaves each character on an appropriate note. Aside from a few coincidences that feel a tad too convenient, the film is without any major missteps. Even if it doesn’t take home as many awards as Spotlight, Stillwater is another winner for McCarthy.