The last we heard from writer/director Tom McCarthy, he was delivering one of the best movies about newspaper journalism in movie history, Spotlight, which would go on to win Best Picture at the 2016 Academy Awards. His directorial follow-up, Stillwater, is another one that feels ripped straight from the headlines, but is actually an original story about an estranged family, clashing cultures, and the lengths people will go to prove their innocence.
Matt Damon plays Bill, an Oklahoma native who works on oil rigs and in construction. His daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), is in prison in Marseilles, France, having been convicted of killing her girlfriend five years prior. Bill makes regular trips to France to bring Allison things she needs, although their relationship is strained due to Bill’s extended absences and alcoholism when Allison was younger.
On this return visit, Allison provides Bill with info that she claims will exonerate her. Unable to get Allison’s lawyer or anyone else to investigate for him, Bill sets out on a quest to do it himself. That journey soon involves Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her young daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), who not only help Bill with translation duties, but offer him a place to stay when the mission takes longer than expected.
McCarthy, who got help on the script from Marcus Hinchey and French writers Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré, is not interested in the Liam Neeson Taken version of this kind of story. Although the film occasionally leans in a thriller direction, it is mostly a straight-up drama about a father trying to prove his worth to his estranged daughter. Bill is no superhero; he’s just a regular guy trying to do the best he can in a strange situation.
And because it’s not a frantic race to find out whodunit, McCarthy and his team really dig in with their characters, getting to know them on a granular level. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, the film’s pace will test the patience of some, especially those looking for a quick resolution. But for my money, the emotions that come from showing the new bonds Bill is creating and the old one he’s trying to repair give the film much more heft than if they tried to sprint to the finish.
The film tries to play up Bill’s fish-out-of-water status in France, although they could have gone even stronger than they did. Bill initially speaks little French, but the language barrier doesn’t seem to slow him down that much. The fact that he’s from Oklahoma and likely a political conservative is brought up, although very briefly; it would have been better for the issue not to have been raised at all than approached in the tepid way it is.
Damon goes all-in on his character, putting on weight and utilizing an accent that’s effective (although only Oklahoma natives can weigh in on its accuracy). He also makes Bill extremely stoic, someone who rarely goes above his normal monotone. He’s aided greatly by Cottin and especially Siauvaud, who’s making her acting debut. The girl has empathy coming from her pores, and it’s Maya’s relationship with Bill that stands out. Breslin, nominated for an Oscar as a 9-year-old in Little Miss Sunshine, used to be that type of young actor. She’s okay in this role, although her character could have been fleshed out a bit more.
The impact of Stillwater does not build quickly, but the rewards that come from it are still strong. Damon remains one of the best actors working today, and while this character is much different than anyone he’s played before, he has no trouble making him believable and sympathetic.
Stillwater is playing now in theaters.