There’s a really bad version of Stillwater that easily could exist. One doesn’t have to speculate too wildly to imagine a tone-deaf and America First type version of the film. Or, there easily could have been the Clint Eastwood version of the movie, that just seems tossed off. Luckily, Tom McCarthy is too good for that. Instead, the flick is thoughtful and ruminative, allowing the story to build naturally. Now, that doesn’t mean that all of the choices work here, since they do not, but it’s all done with both heart and intelligence. Factor in some very strong acting and this is the sort of adult drama cinemas all too rarely are stocked with these days. Kudos to Focus Features for reminding us that this sort of film is still very much worth making.
Stillwater steadily builds to a moving conclusion, even if there are fits and starts along the way. One focus of the flick is far more successful than the other, but it always feels as thought McCarthy and company believe in the story they’re telling. That goes a long way in making sure he never loses the audience.
Bill Baker (Matt Damon) travels whenever he can from Oklahoma to a small town in France. Completely out of his element in Europe, as opposed to his home of Stillwater, Bill still makes these trips like clockwork. He does so because, a few years ago, his college-aged daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) was jailed for the murder of her former girlfriend and roommate. On his most recent trip, Allison asks Bill to deliver a note to her lawyer Leparq (Anne Le Ny), urging the attorney to re-open her case with new evidence. That goes nowhere, so Bill, long known as a screw-up to his family, opts to secretly follow the lead. To do that, he needs some translation, which leads to a bond with local woman Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). They become friendly, but his sloppy sleuthing ultimately is discovered and has Allison cutting him out of her life.
Determined still not to let Allison down, even if he’s out of his element and shunned by her, he stays in France. Living with Virginie and Maya, he forms a new, small family, one free of the mistakes that definite his time in Stillwater. All along, he keeps his eye out for Akim (Idir Azougli), whom he’s convinced committed the crime Allison is in jail for. One day, a chance sighting gives him a chance at redemption, or perhaps even more trouble for Allison.
Matt Damon leads a really solid cast here. Damon, alongside Abigail Breslin and Camille Cottin, deliver complex and full bodied performances. This is an honest yet empathetic depiction of a conservative, middle America man, with all the benefits and faults that come with it. It’s not showy, but it does come off, ultimately, as one of Damon’s best performances. Breslin makes the most of her limited screen time, imbuing her character with an edge as well as humanity. You want more with her, and that’s a credit to Breslin. Cottin is also a lovely surprise, turning in the most passionate work in the flick.
Filmmaker Tom McCarthy approaches the material with an interesting amount of curiosity. McCarthy and co-writers Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré, and Marcus Hinchey follow a number of plot points further than you’d have expected. The second act, largely dedicated to the emerging family bonds, is unusual and easily the movie’s most successful section. At the same time, the investigation aspects are less successful, and the third act thriller aspects are way off the mark. That being said, the ending is surprisingly powerful.
Awards-wise, Stillwater may wind up being a little too down the middle for the Academy, but don’t sleep on it. Oscar may find aspects of it hard to resist, if things break the right way for Focus. This isn’t Spotlight by any stretch from McCarthy, but few things are. Matt Damon will be in play, at least for now, and it still could wind up scoring in Best Picture, but the road may be an uphill one.
Stillwater is a quality studio drama with hints of greatness within it. If you’ve longed for more films of this ilk at your local multiplex, well…rejoice. If you thought this was a sure-fire Academy Award nominee, keep your expectations in check. Otherwise, this is a movie that’s well worth seeing.