Written by Tom McCarthy, Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré
Starring Matt Damon, Camille Cottin, Abigail Breslin
2021 | R | 2h 19min
Streaming: YouTube, Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play Movies, Vudu
Tom McCarthy honed his skills as a film director and screenwriter in The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2007). With Spotlight in 2015, he won an Academy Award for screenwriting and was nominated in the best director category.
Directing Stillwater in 2021, he continued his preference for understated films about disparate people undergoing challenges, who form new family arrangements out of necessity.
Matt Damon (Bill) lives the hardworking life of an oil-rig worker, an Oklahoma roughneck who spends time with his mother Sharon (Deanna Dunagan) and worries about his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), who is serving time in a French prison.
Several times a year he travels to Marseille to visit his daughter in prison. Their relationship bristles with tension. She is grateful for his loyalty, but resentful because of his failures as a father when she was growing up in Stillwater.
When he believes there is new evidence in her case, Bill pursues it with diligence, seeking out Allison’s attorney Leparq (Anne Le Ny). In the process of tracking each possible lead, he rents a room from a widow (Camille Cottin) and her small daughter. Camille Cottin as Virginie gives a luminous performance as a friend who becomes something more, helping Bill understand what is and is not possible in a culture he does not know.
This film would have generated only mild interest if it had not been based on the story of Amanda Knox of Seattle, convicted of killing her roommate in Italy under circumstances similar to the ones portrayed in Stillwater. Neither the director nor Matt Damon contacted Amanda Knox or her father, Curt Knox.
Eventually Amanda Knox was freed from an Italian prison after new DNA evidence was discovered. She returned to Seattle and her family. Through multiple media sources, Amanda made known her displeasure and disappointment that others have profited from her traumatic experience, and yet no one contacted her to get her version of what happened.
Here is an excerpt from the Seattle Times (2021):
“The cherry on top of this #STILLWATER thing: Damon & McCarthy spent time with and developed empathy for ‘Oklahoma roughnecks,’ but didn’t think to extend that same effort and empathy to the wrongfully vilified woman they used as a plot device,” commented Knox on Twitter, with a screenshot from the Rolling Stone story.
In a similarly-focused Medium post and an essay for The Atlantic, Knox’s response to the film has raised questions about what storytellers owe their subjects, should they choose to draw inspiration from real-life events.”
Damon gives a solid performance as a stoic and determined father, hoping to compensate for the years when he was anything but. His physical strength and willingness to work hard on the oil rigs, construction sites, and disaster cleanup after a hurricane are meant to show us that he is a man of some character. However, no real emotion crosses his face until he reaches a crossroads which he cannot control by sheer force of will.
WATCH: ‘Stillwater’ Official Trailer
Damon’s character in Stillwater bears some resemblance to Jack Nicholson as Jerry Black in The Pledge, a 2001 film directed by Sean Penn. A retired cop makes a deathbed promise to find a killer, and that promise follows him into retirement in a small town. He forms a series of positive relationships in this new life, only to place all that he values in danger when he returns to that deathbed obligation.
How much is too much, is too far? Where do you draw the line in pursuing your obsession? Who pays the consequences when others get hurt?
Vivid images of starkness of life in Stillwater contrast with the sweetness of life and possibility in Marseille. Fine cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi.
Released in theaters in 2021, but now available for home viewing.
Recommended. 3.5 out of 5 stars.