Do not expect man eating sea monsters or vicious sharks terrorizing unsuspecting humans in the crime drama ‘Stillwater’ as this film has nothing to do with any of that. Directed by Oscar winner Tom McCarthy from a script he co-wrote with Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain and Noe Debre ‘Stillwater’ was inspired by the infamous case of American student Amanda Knox who was wrongly convicted in the murder of her roommate and fellow student in Italy but it is not a biopic so it doesn’t replicate what happened in the Amanda case. This film has Academy winner Matt Damon as its lead alongside French actress Camille Cottin and ‘Dirty Dancing’ star Abigail Breslin. The film had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival and landed in theatres in the United States on July 30 after more than a year of delay due to the coronavirus pandemic.
This intriguing tale follows the story of an unemployed roughneck from Oklahoma named Bill Baker played by Matt Damon whose daughter Allison Baker embodied by Abigail Breslin has been wrongly convicted in the French port city of Marseille. Bill travels often to France to visit his daughter who is serving her fifth year in prison of her nine year sentence after she is convicted of murdering her Arab-French fellow student and lover Lina.
During one of his visits, Allison gives Bill a note written in French to deliver to her defense attorney Miss Leparq played by French actress Anne Le Ny. The attorney rubbishes Allison’s new found evidence basing it on hearsay. However, Bill is not relenting especially since now there is a way he can save his daughter and with the help of French neighbor and theatre actress Virginie a role by Camille Cottin, Bill is able to decipher the details of the letter and ventures on a solo mission to exonerate his daughter with minimal success. Alongside the way, he develops a bond with Virginie and her daughter Maya, acting as a father figure to the little girl. In an attempt to prove his daughter’s innocence, Bill captures the presumed killer, gets a sample of his hair for a DNA test and locks him up in the basement of Virginie’s house. She discovers the imprisoned man and frees him just as the police swoop into the house to investigate Bill. Virginie throws Bill out of her house and their lives for endangering her daughter’s life and making her lie on his behalf. Fortunately, things take a dramatic turn for the better and Allison is finally acquitted of the crime after the DNA test proves her innocence and is allowed to go back home.
Bill Baker, painted as a failed father gets a second chance to become the father he never was to his own daughter Alison as they click pretty fast with his newfound friend turned lover slash translator’s daughter Maya. He seems to find meaning in this new life, though both Bill and Allison believe they have some flaws which keep breaking their relationships with other people preventing them from being happy. At some point in the story, however, Bill, as well as the audience, slightly get worried that the girl everyone has presumed being falsely accused might not be innocent after all after Akim, the guy who allegedly killed Lina reveals that Alison paid him to take her girlfriend out. Once they get home after the case is closed, Bill confronts Allison about it and she admits that she wanted Lina out but not dead and once again to protect his daughter, Bill never says a word to anyone about this crucial detail.
Audiences are used to seeing Damon as an action star in intense chases and gunfights, the ‘Jason Bourne’ spy franchise instantly comes to mind, however here, he is just a very ordinary man, noble if you may, god fearing and always respectful which is really captivating. Editing is smart and sleek as the way the various scenes are pieced together right from his journey from the United States to Marseille France saves a lot of screen time and makes the events more seamless and interesting to follow. The emotion, focus and determination of a doting father who will transcend great lengths to see his little girl acquitted is emotionally endearing.
The lead character is perfectly constructed way from his costume, a beat up baseball cap with sunglasses on its bill, a flannel shirt tucked into cheap jeans, a goatee, his mannerisms, a god fearing gun totting American all the way down to his impressive southern accent. However, as the story drags on for over two hours it becomes unfurling which McCarthy attempts to balance out by building suspense with most of the work being done by the score by Mychael Danna as the plot twists become almost ludicrous once the presumed villain Akim enters the picture.
Another aspect in this movie is that there really isn’t much reason to invest in Allison as a character despite the heavy burden Bill clearly bears. Yes her case was big news at the time in a town stricken by poverty and racism however she remains remote as a character with only a few tender moments with her father and adoptive family which she meets during a day release.
‘Stillwater’ was shot on location in both Marseille and Oklahoma hence it is as real as it gets making it very relatable. Being in a foreign country caught up in a complicated legal system with a language barrier whilst not giving up inspires a lot of hope in many as a father. However, the French bits are translated making the conversations more engaging as the audience is able to follow the various situations and what’s happening when the language changes.
All the lead actors deliver strong performances for this flick which adds an extra flair and joining Bill Baker on this self-redeeming journey is a great reason to give it a shot.