Stillwater is not what the trailer advertised. I went into the theater expecting to see a thriller about an American father who will do whatever it takes to prove his daughter’s innocence and get her out of a French prison. But that’s not the film I saw. While there are elements of this concept, the majority is really a drama about an American father who falls in love with the French woman who helps him on his quest to prove his daughter’s innocence and becomes a father figure to her young daughter.
Despite this misdirection, Stillwater proved to be a great drama though it’s a slow burn and could do with some reduction in runtime.
Bill Baker (Matt Damon) is an out of work oil worker from Stillwater, Oklahoma who travels regularly to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) in Marseille, France. Allison has spent the last four years in prison for the murder of Lina, who was her room mate and lover while Allison was attending university in Marseille.
On his latest trip to see his daughter, Bill is tasked by Allison to hand a letter written in French (which Bill can’t read) to her defense lawyer, Leparq (Anne Le Ny). Bill learns from Leparq that the letter asks Leparq to investigate some hearsay Allison has heard that might exonerate her. However, Leparq refuses to look into it.
With the help of a local resident, Virginie (Camille Cottin), who translates the language and provides a place to stay, Bill decides to extend his stay and do the legwork himself to find the alleged killer in the letter. But as time goes by with Bill creating a new life Virginie and her young daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), he finds himself in an unexpected relationship where he gets a second chance at having a family life.
Matt Damon gives a strong, nuanced performance as a flawed father and working class man who continues to do the wrong thing despite his best intentions. There is much humanity to his character who at first glance could be dismissed as just a backwater Trumper. But he easily destroys that two-dimensional assumption and stereotype with the aid of a thoughtful script that gives his character depth and a reason to root for him. He acknowledges his past mistakes and wants to be a better person even if he doesn’t go about it the right way and so you find yourself wanting him to succeed.
Camille Cottin also gives a solid performance as Virginie, the French single mother, theatre actress who agrees to help an American roughneck exonerate his imprisoned daughter and in the process falls for him. With a life immersed in French, theatrical culture, she’s the perfect opposite to Bill who makes up for his cultural shortcomings with his handyman know-how and his big heart. Cottin is fantastic with her ability to portray the subtle mannerisms people have when they sense or observe something is off in the situation they find themselves in, making her feel all the more natural and authentic.
Writer and Director Tom McCarthy (Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, Spotlight) delivers a moving love story about people from different worlds finding love. Even though Stillwater is advertised as a crime, drama, thriller online, it’s far from that and if his goal was to deliver that type of film then he has mostly failed. Sure, the introduction, Bill’s motivation and the reveal at the end all meet the crime drama genre, but these actually fall to the wayside for most of the film and it becomes a love story when the relationship between Bill and Virginie starts to develop.
Don’t let that deter you though, because it’s still a great film that explores many themes about racism, family and the flawed system of law with amazing performances and powerful scenes. But more time is spent on a man forming a new family and falling in love than him solving the crime. The excessive runtime definitely feels like two films stitched together; a short film about a man looking for a killer, and a longer film about the same man not looking for the killer and carving out a new life in France.
Stillwater may not be what the trailer advertised but I still really enjoyed it. If you go in expecting an exciting and interesting investigation into finding a killer then you’ll be sorely disappointed because you won’t get that. But if you want to see a love story, sprinkled with a little crime thriller that is filmed in interesting locations with stellar performances from Damon and all the lead cast, then Stillwater is worth checking out.