Starring Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, Camille Cottin, Lilou Siauvaud, Deanna Dunagan
Written by Tom McCarthy, Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, Noe Debre
Directed by Tom McCarthy
Produced by Steve Golin, Tom McCarthy, Jonathan King and Liza Chasin
Cinematography by Masaonobu Takayanagi
Edited by Tom McArdle
Music by Mychael Danna
If one ignores all of the side stories about “Stillwater,” which is recommended, and just enjoys the movie as a story that is part basic human drama about a father’s love for his daughter, about a father’s quest for the truth and justice, as a tender fish-out-of-water story, as an unexpected romance, as an exploration how people of differing types and backgrounds and nationalities can reach across barriers to connect as human beings–all with a bit of international murder mystery suspense thrown in to throw everything else off-track just a bit–then one should be able to enjoy and appreciate “Stillwater” as the above-average, insightful and enjoyable movie that it is.
And here’s what “Stillwater” really isn’t and doesn’t have to be: a story about red and blue, Democratic and Republican, left and right, conservative and liberal, American and everyone else. This just isn’t what this story is about. Here’s what else “Stillwater” really isn’t and doesn’t have to be: A telling of the Amanda Knox story. Knox has complained that the movie steals her story, plays off of her life and misrepresents her story. However, “Stillwater” could be the story of literally hundreds–or thousands– of real-life murder mysteries that occur anywhere in the world every year. The movie isn’t necessarily the Amanda Knox–and of all people, Amanda Knox should know that. Even if the stories are similar, the story of “Stillwater” also happens to be quite familiar to, again, thousands of true-life murder mystery cases that occur every year around the world.
Those annoying side stories aside, “Stillwater” succeeds as a gripping, tightly-written, tightly-directed, well-produced and quite strongly acted drama and murder mystery suspense thriller. Some may quarrel and question and even criticize a certain major plot and story twist about a third of the way through the movie, and a strong argument could be made against what happens. However, it’s that twist and turn that makes the movie different, provides a bit of a needed kick at just the right moment, and takes the movie correctly out of what has previously been a cookie-cutter television cop show investigative procedural story. The twist takes the movie, story, plot and characters out of a safe zone, yes, but that twist and escape from that safe zone makes a strong point about the basic, underlying theme of the movie, which, above all else, is a father’s strong love for his daughter and his determination to do whatever he has to do to protect his daughter, fight for her and stand up for what he believes is right. The message with the plot twist is that love–and in this case, a father’s love for his daughter–conquers all, and some people will literally go to any length in the name of that love.
Another plot twist toward the end of the movie will also have people questioning and quarreling, but, again, that twist also strengthens the main point and helps prove that basic message, moral and theme of the movie.
Beyond these questionable plot and story points, “Stillwater” still manages to be thoroughly watchable, engrossing, interesting and smartly written, produced, directed and acted. Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy (who also directed and wrote the award-winning “Spotlight” from 2015) has written a multi-layered story that captures the attention on the aforementioned several overlapping areas and his direction is always strong, assured and confident. The production takes an American and puts him squarely and directly into a land that for him is strange, unusual and different–Marseille in France–and the film is shot overseas, utilizing various aspects of that city to present a truly foreign land to this visitor.
And the acting is exceptional–the four leads stand out throughout the film, and there is never any doubt about their characters, their beliefs, their convictions and their emotions. The film marks one of Matt Damon’s best performances, Abigail Breslin’s best performance so far in her young career, and stand-out performances by Camille Cottin and Lilou Siauvaud as a mother and daughter, respectively, who Damon’s character befriends in Marseille. Little Lilou Siauvaud, who is about eight years old, steals many scenes in the movie and will steal your heart. Lilou’s character, Maya, is a spunky, smart and cute little girl navigating her life in a big city without a strong father figure, and when Damon’s character, Bill Baker, enters her life, little Maya and gruff, stoic Bill somehow bond and develop a father-daughter connection and affection for each other, and their scenes are very real, down-to-earth and quite touching. Perhaps a better movie would have been if Baker had connected with Cottin’s single-mother Virginie and little Lilou only in the context of a cross-country international romance and only in that context–but that’s perhaps another movie. Alas, the touching connection that Baker develops between Virginie and Lilou just happens to get caught up, mixed up and confused with the over-riding main story.
That main story is Baker’s quest to investigate his daughter Allison’s arrest and incarceration in Marseille for allegedly murdering her girlfriend and roommate. Allison insists that she is innocent, and Baker–an oil worker, not a police officer or detective by any means–works his way through the French court system, the prison system, the judicial system and the public safety system to try to prove his daughter’s innocence. Complicating factors include Baker’s stubborn, gritty, one-dimensional personality–again, well-played and well-constructed by Damon; various French officials and investigators and authorities who aren’t exactly cooperative with Baker’s investigation and insistence; that bubbling, tentative romance between Baker and Virginie; and that tender, heartfelt friendship and connection between Baker and Lilou. There’s also Allison’s continuing anger and resentment against her father, who she accuses of being remote and uncaring as a father. That tension in that father-daughter relationship, though, merely helps propel Baker on his desperate, steamroller, insistent quest to prove his daughter’s innocence.
Damon and Breslin bring not only consistently strong acting performances, but their characters’ conflicting, yin-and-yang, up-and-down, difficult father-daughter relationship is strongly portrayed, anchoring the movie. And, again, Cottin and Lilou additionally offer strong performances that anchor the sub-plot. Their characters’ actions, motivations and interactions are not always easy, are not always clear and black and white, and for all four main actors to carry their characters and performances forward strongly throughout the film is a testament to their strong acting. The only nitpick is that Damon’s Bill Baker–despite that overall strong performance–can, at times, still come across as too straightforward, too wound-up, too tightly wound, and too one-dimenstional. Baker’s character, who comes from Stillwater, Oklahoma, hence the movie’s title, at one point laughs at a suggestion that he attend a theater play, saying something like, “What would I do in a theater?” Well, that’s really far too one-dimensional for anyone–you go to the theater to watch a play, and anyone on the planet has the ability to go to a theater and watch a play. A few of Baker’s personality quirks are a little too narrowly defined and stereotyped, and McCarthy and his co-writers should have let Baker open up a bit more–laugh, joke around, be a bit more real more often. Yes, Baker develops a romance with Virginie and connects with Lilou, but Baker still always seems a bit hesitant and resistant. Perhaps McCarthy and Damon wanted to show that no matter how real-life emotions and relationships enter his world, his main goal and quest never deviates too far from his journey to prove his daughter’s innocence and free her from jail.
Abigail Breslin’s Allison is all toughness, resentment, conflict, anger and independence. She knows her dad is trying to help her and free her, and she appreciates that, but she still holds deep-rooted anger and disappointment toward her dad. These conflicting emotions and, again, the emotions that show in the taut, tightly-wound scenes between Allison and Baker provide some interesting layers and conflict to the story, the movie and these characters’ relationships. These tensions and conflicts make these scenes between Baker and Allison at once touching, highly emotional, highly-charged, tense, conflicting–and wholly, completely real. This is how people interact and react and relate in the real world–relationships and connections among family, friends, acquaintances, co-workers and whomever else in the world are not easy, are often difficult, have complicated layers and are just never completely black and white, but always existing in that gray area that envelops everything that is complicated, difficult, uncomplicated and easy. That’s life, the movie seems to say–nothing is clear and everything is unclear. And, sometimes, as in “Stillwater,” these inconsistencies, layers, conflicts and gray areas come together to present and represent all that life is and all that life can be. And that’s a strong message to present.
Life is messy and difficult, and life is messy and difficult in “Stillwater.” Yet the film and story are never difficult to understand, watch, feel or even enjoy, on a dramatic, suspenseful, romantic and even police detective murder mystery level. McCarthy, his co-writers, his strong production crew and his excellent actors manager to somehow bring all of life’s messiness together to present a complicated, yet, in a way, not really complicated, story and movie with, as mentioned, all of life’s conflicting, overlapping, multi-layered levels, relationships, emotions–and gray areas–that come together as an above-average, insightful, intelligent, thoughtful and introspective film that is definitely worth seeing in the theaters this summer.