In Stillwater, Matt Damon gives one of his best performances as a determined father who wants to free his daughter from a French prison.
The young woman (Abigail Breslin) was studying in France when she was convicted of murdering her girlfriend. Once all over the story, the French press has lost interest. Breslin's Allison is in the fifth year of a nine-year sentence.
An unemployed oil-rig worker, Bill travels from Oklahoma to Marseille where he might have become the proverbial fish out of water had he not been so intensely focused. With a drawl and a jumbo-sized helping of politeness, Bill almost seems afraid that any slip-up might cost him his recovery from alcoholism, as well as from his own stint in prison.
The city of Marseille co-stars, lending the movie texture and grit. A rich sense of location penetrates nearly every scene. The protocols for visiting a French prison, the feel of a coffee shop frequented by the city's large Arab population, and the cramped quality of the modest apartment in which Bill eventually lands all help create authenticity.
Director Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) tries to take a meaningful look at what it means to be a guy like Bill, an American who says he didn't vote for Trump but qualifies the statement by pointing out that as a former prisoner, he couldn't vote at all.
Bill's a good ole boy who wasn't always on his best behavior.
Things don’t always go well for Bill in France. In his search to clear his daughter, he winds up in the inhospitable Kalliste neighborhood where he's beaten badly enough to land in a hospital. He's looking for Akim (Idir Azougli), a guy who might hold the key to his daughter's release.
Bill receives help when he meets Virginie (Camille Cotton of Netflix's Call My Agent), an actress who lives with Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), her eight-year-old daughter.
Both Cotton and Siauvaud give performances that feel as lived-in and real as the city itself.
A single mom, Virginie translates for Bill and winds up renting him a room in her apartment. He begins to develop a tender relationship with Maya, clearly compensation for the many years in which he neglected Allison.
It’s difficult not to notice the story's resemblance to the highly publicized Amanda Knox case -- but Allison's guilt or innocence almost seems beside the point. It's Bill who gives the story its focus.
Written by McCarthy, Thomas Bidegain, and Marcus Hinchey, Stillwater may best be viewed as a character study that probably would have benefited from a few less strains, a little less reliance on coincidence and contrivance.
And not all the movie's themes are adequately explored. At one point, Virginie is put off by Bill's insensitivity toward Arabs, but McCarthy isn't interested in the political gap between an Oklahoma oil worker and a cosmopolitan French woman.
Even in the movie’s less credible moments, Damon completely inhabits the role of a man battling to move beyond a past he regrets. Bill wants to expand his stunted emotional horizons with Virginie and her daughter. Damon makes us feel Bill trying to change -- even when he doesn't know quite how.
Maybe that's why it doesn't seem implausible when the relationship between Bill and Virginie takes a romantic turn.
I wish Stillwater were a sharper movie, but Damon -- looking bulky and thick -- fully commits himself to a role that gives him a chance to do some of the strongest work of his career.