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Beneath the weathered baseball cap and bushy goatee, the parade of plaid shirts and the polite replies of “Yes, ma’am,” there’s a whole lot more to Bill Baker. Sure, he listens to old-school country in his pickup truck while driving between manual labor gigs and he never fails to pray before a meal, even if it’s tater tots and a cherry limeade from Sonic. It seems perfectly natural to him to keep a couple of guns in his run-down Oklahoma home, and he never misses an opportunity to watch his favorite college football team.
But there’s something simmering within this collection of red-state stereotypes, and “Stillwater” is at its best when it explores those complexities and contradictions. Beefed-up and sad-eyed, Matt Damon brings great subtlety and pathos to the role, especially when he cracks his stoic character open ever so gently and allows warmth, vulnerability, and even hope to shine through on his road to redemption. But Bill’s tale of hard-earned second chances is one of many stories director Tom McCarthy is telling in “Stillwater,” and while it’s the most compelling, it also gets swallowed up almost entirely during the film’s insane third act.
The script, which McCarthy co-wrote with Thomas Bidegain , Marcus Hinchey , and Noe Debre, loosely takes its inspiration from the case of Amanda Knox, the American college student convicted in 2007 of killing her roommate while studying abroad in Italy. Eight years later, Knox was acquitted. “Stillwater” moves the action to the French port city of Marseilles and introduces us to Bill’s daughter, Allison ( Abigail Breslin ), after she’s already served five years of a nine-year prison sentence for the murder of her lover, a young Muslim woman.
Allison insists she’s innocent; Bill resolutely believes her. And so “Stillwater” is also the story of a father and daughter trying to mend their strained relationship as he makes frequent visits to chat and do her laundry and she pretends to care as he prattles on about Oklahoma State football. (The college campus is in—that’s right—Stillwater, Bill and Allison’s hometown. But as you’ve probably guessed by now, the title refers to our hero’s demeanor, as well.) “Life is brutal,” each of them says at one point, and one of the more intriguing elements of “Stillwater” is the notion that being a screw-up is hereditary, which pushes against its feel-good, Hollywood-ending urges.
But wait, there’s more—so much more. Because the primary driving narrative here is the possibility that Allison can prove her innocence based on jailhouse hearsay about an elusive, young Arab man. Here, “Stillwater” becomes a procedural reminiscent of McCarthy’s Oscar best-picture winner “ Spotlight ,” as Bill knocks on doors and follows one lead after another, talking to people who either help him or don’t in his efforts to exonerate his only child. In this vein, it’s also about the racial tensions and socioeconomic disparities that exist in both France and the United States, and the blindly confident swagger with which some Americans carry themselves overseas—even someone like Bill who is, to borrow from the Tim McGraw song, humble and kind.
And for a big chunk of its midsection, it’s about a middle-aged man forming an unexpected friendship—and then a makeshift family—with a single mom and her little girl. Virginie (a vibrant and charismatic Camille Cottin ) and her daughter, Maya (an adorable and steely Lilou Siauvaud ), give the widowed Bill a shot at righting the wrongs of his past. Virginie and Bill initially connect when she offers to help him in his investigation by making calls, translating and generally serving as his guide through an ancient city he’s barely gotten to know. The relationship makes zero sense on paper—she’s a bohemian actress, he’s an oil-rig worker—but the small kindnesses they show each other allow them to forge a bond, and allow Bill to reveal more about himself and his tortured history, piece by piece. It sounds cheesy, but surprisingly, it works.
This is far and away the strongest section of “Stillwater,” and if the majority of this film had focused on this understated dynamic and the quiet hope of better days to come, it would have been more than satisfying. The performances here are lovely, and Damon enjoys distinctly sweet connections with both Cottin and Siauvaud. But then it takes a significant turn into darker territory toward the end, with twists predicated on major coincidences and reckless decisions. “Stillwater” also becomes a far less interesting film as it slogs through its overlong running time. While it’s fascinating to consider Bill’s self-destructive streak rearing its head once again, even after it seems he’s finally found some peace, the way it plays out is so wild and implausible, it feels like it was ripped from an entirely different movie and grafted on here. Within this eventful stretch, there’s also a suicide attempt that’s tossed in almost as a baffling afterthought, as it’s never mentioned again.
Ultimately, the cacophony of all these plot lines converging and the weight of the messaging being conveyed is almost too much to bear. Details get spelled out and characters explain their motivations when maintaining an overall air of mystery would have been far more effective. Whether or not Allison is guilty isn’t the point; enjoying a moment of stillness and solitude in the afternoon sunshine is, even if it's fleeting.
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Christy Lemire is a longtime film critic who has written for RogerEbert.com since 2013. Before that, she was the film critic for The Associated Press for nearly 15 years and co-hosted the public television series "Ebert Presents At the Movies" opposite Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, with Roger Ebert serving as managing editor. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here .
She Came to Me
Waiting for the Light to Change
Matt zoller seitz.
Rated R for language.
Matt Damon as Bill Baker
Abigail Breslin as Allison
Camille Cottin as Virginie
Lilou Siauvaud as Maya
Deanna Dunagan as Sharon
Robert Peters as Pastor
Moussa Maaskri as Dirosa
- Tom McCarthy
- Thomas Bidegain
- Marcus Hinchey
- Masanobu Takayanagi
- Tom McArdle
- Mychael Danna
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‘Stillwater’ Review: Matt Damon Gets to the Heart of How the World Sees Americans Right Now
'Spotlight' director Tom McCarthy collaborates with top French screenwriter Thomas Bidegain in this humbling Marseille-set crime drama.
By Peter Debruge
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Americans are used to watching Americans save the day in movies. That’s the kind of hero Bill Baker wants to be for his daughter Allison — a young woman convicted of murdering her girlfriend while studying abroad — in “Spotlight” director Tom McCarthy ’s not-at-all-conventional crime thriller “ Stillwater .” The setup will sound familiar to anyone who remembers the Amanda Knox case: Five clicks in to a nine-year sentence, Allison has always maintained her innocence. After new evidence arises, she writes a letter to her lawyer asking for help. But she’s careful not to involve her dad directly. “I cannot trust him with this. He’s not capable,” she writes.
To a particular kind of man, words like that are a direct challenge. And when that man is played by Matt Damon in sleeveless T-shirts and a bald-eagle tattoo, we expect him to save the day anyway. Maybe he does, but that’s not the reason McCarthy chose to tell this story. Originally, he just wanted to film a mystery in a Mediterranean town, deciding at some point that the French port of Marseille would do the trick. But in the time that it took to make the movie, something changed with America. Maybe you noticed. Certainly, the world did.
McCarthy tells “Stillwater” from Bill Baker’s point of view, but he invites audiences to see the character from others’ perspectives as well, to observe how this out-of-place roughneck looks to the people he meets abroad — and especially to a single mother named Virginie (“Call My Agent!” star Camille Cottin) whom the gruff widower befriends early on. Back home in Stillwater, Okla., Bill does odd jobs since losing his oil-rig gig. He wouldn’t be in Marseille if not for his daughter (Abigail Breslin). He’s not a tourist, and he’s not interested in learning the language. But he’s not the stereotypical “ugly American” either. Bill prays, he’s polite and he believes in doing the right thing. And if Allison says she’s innocent, then the right thing in this God-fearing, gun-owning guy’s eyes is to help her prove it.
Now, anyone could’ve written that movie. But McCarthy was smart: He enlisted the top screenwriter working in France today, Thomas Bidegain (“A Prophet”), and his writing partner Noé Debré to collaborate and wound up with a completely different movie. Well, maybe not completely different, but different enough to disappoint those expecting to see Matt Damon whip out a gun and kick down some doors in pursuit of justice. (Let Mark Wahlberg make that film.)
Bidegain’s signature — the thing that sets him apart from the vast majority of screenwriters — is that he doesn’t write “the scene where” a specific plot point is supposed to happen. Watching most Hollywood thrillers, that’s all you get, as if the creators bought a bunch of index cards, divided the movie into story-advancing moments (the scene where A, the scene where B) and taped them to the wall, then built the script from that. Bidegain knows we’ve all seen enough movies that such literal-mindedness gets boring, and so he and Debré come at each scene sideways: They let certain things happen off screen, focusing instead on seemingly mundane snapshots that reveal far more about character.
“Stillwater” contains a mix of both approaches — a scene where a friend of Virginie’s asks Bill whom he voted for is a prime example — and while it’s hard to say who wrote what (Marcus Hinchey, of terrific Netflix drama “Come Sunday,” is also credited), the movie’s more interesting for being less obvious. Naturally, Bill wants to clear his daughter’s name, and “Stillwater” shows him going about it. But the cultural barriers make it impossible to get far by himself — a trip to north Marseille’s notorious Kallisté neighborhood leaves him hospitalized — and so he enlists Viriginie, winning her over by being kind to her 8-year-old daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud).
Of course, Bill can’t change French law, and it’s not clear that even if he could locate the guy Allison claims was responsible — an Arab who was there in the bar that night — he’d be able to overturn her conviction. But as he and Virginie spend time together, Bill shows Maya the kind of fatherly concern he was too drunk and reckless to give Allison when she was a kid. The guilt of that irresponsibility weighs heavy on Bill, adding another dimension to Damon’s remarkable performance. There’s something caveman-like about the way the actor carries his body, in the scowl on his face and slow drawl of his Southern accent. The character has a temper problem, and from the looks of him, he could tear someone in two — although that might not be advisable in a foreign country.
After hitting a dead end in the investigation, Bill decides to stay on in Marseille. He moves in with Virginie and Maya, picking up a few words of French and playing handyman around the house. To dub this Bill’s redemption might oversimplify things, although something’s plainly changing in him. And that change is the soul of “Stillwater.” Resisting any temptation to be cute, yet bolstered by child actor Siauvaud’s immensely sympathetic presence, the movie gives Bill — as well as audiences — a taste of another life.
Will Americans who haven’t been abroad connect with this part of the movie? Or will they be bored with every second that Bill isn’t proactively trying to prove Allison’s innocence? At 140 minutes, “Stillwater” spends a lot more time on Bill’s new domestic situation with Virginie and Maya than viewers probably expect. But then, these scenes take time, since they’re tasked with conveying more than just the latest development in the case. (By contrast, straightforward genre movies have the luxury of being tight.) Ironically, the clunkiest scene here occurs when the cops show up.
McCarthy has more on his mind, using Damon’s character to “make hole” (as roughnecks do) in various assumptions Americans hold about themselves. Bill serves as a mirror of what foreigners see when a certain kind of cowboy barrels through the saloon doors of another country, hands on his holster, and it’s not necessarily flattering. On the surface, that may not satisfy everyone, but then, to coin a phrase, “Stillwater” runs deep.
Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition), July 8, 2021. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 140 MIN.
- Production: A Focus Features release of a Participant, DreamWorks Pictures presentation of a Slow Pony, Anonymous Content production, in association with 3Dot Prods., Supernatural Pictures. Producers: Steve Golin, Tom McCarthy, Jonathan King, Liza Chasin. Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, David Linde, Robert Kessel, Mari Jo Winkler-Ioffreda, Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré. Co-producers: Raphaël Benoliel, Melissa Wells.
- Crew: Director: Tom McCarthy. Screenplay: Tom McCarthy & Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain & Noé Debré. Camera: Masanobu Takayanagi. Editor: Tom McArdle. Music: Mychael Danna.
- With: Matt Damon, Camille Cottin, Abigail Breslin, Lilou Siauvaud, Deanna Dunagan, Idir Azougli, Anne Le Ny.
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‘Stillwater’ Review: Another American Tragedy
Matt Damon plays a father determined to free his daughter from prison in the latest from Tom McCarthy, the director of “Spotlight.”
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By Manohla Dargis
A truism about American movies is that when they want to say something about the United States — something grand or profound or meaningful — they typically pull their punches. There are different reasons for this timidity, the most obvious being a fear of the audience’s tricky sensitivities. And so ostensibly political stories rarely take partisan stands, and movies like the ponderously earnest “ Stillwater ” sink under the weight of their good intentions.
The latest from the director Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”), “Stillwater” stars Matt Damon as Bill Baker. He’s a familiar narrative type with the usual late-capitalism woes, including the dead-end gigs, the family agonies, the wounded masculinity. He also has a touch of Hollywood-style exoticism: He’s from Oklahoma. A recovering addict, Bill now toggles between swinging a hammer and taking a knee for Jesus. Proud, hard, alone, with a cord of violence quaking below his impassivity, he lives in a small bleak house and lives a small bleak life. He doesn’t say much, but he’s got a real case of the white-man blues.
He also has a burden in the form of a daughter, Allison (a miscast Abigail Breslin), who’s serving time in a Marseille prison, having been convicted of savagely killing her girlfriend. The story, which McCarthy conceived of (he shares script credit with several others), takes its inspiration from that of Amanda Knox, an American studying in Italy, who was convicted of a 2007 murder, a case that became an international scandal. Knox’s conviction was later overturned and she moved back to the United States, immortalized by lurid headlines, books, documentaries and a risible 2015 potboiler with Kate Beckinsale .
Like that movie, which focuses on the sins of a vampiric, sensation-hungry media, “Stillwater” isn’t interested in the specifics of the Knox case but in its usefulness for moral instruction. Soon after it opens, and following a tour of Bill’s native habitat — with its industrial gothic backdrop and lonely junk-food dinners — he visits Allison, a trip he’s taken repeatedly. This time he stays. Allison thinks that she has a lead that will prove her innocence, which sends her father down an investigative rabbit hole and, for a time, quickens the movie’s pulse.
McCarthy isn’t an intuitive or innovative filmmaker and, like a lot of actors turned directors, he’s more adept at working with performers than telling a story visually. Shot by Masanobu Takayanagi, “Stillwater” looks and moves just fine — it’s solid, professional — and Marseille, with its sunshine and noir, pulls its atmospheric weight as Bill maps the city, trying to chase clues and villains. Also earning his pay is the underutilized French Algerian actor Moussa Maaskri, playing one of those sly, world-weary private detectives who, like the viewer, figures things out long before Bill does.
Much happens, including an abrupt, unpersuasive relationship with a French theater actress, Virginie (the electric Camille Cottin, from the Netflix show “ Call My Agent !”). The character is a fantasy, a ministering angel with a hot bod and a cute tyke (Lilou Siauvaud); among her many implausible attributes, she isn’t ticked off by Bill’s inability to speak French. But Cottin, a charismatic performer whose febrile intensity is its own gravitational force, easily keeps you engaged and curious. She gives her character juice and her scenes a palpable charge, a relief given Bill’s leaden reserve.
There’s little joy in Bill’s life; the problem is, there isn’t much personality, either. It’s clear that Damon and McCarthy have thought through this man in considered detail, from Bill’s plaid shirts to his tightly clenched walk. The character looks as if he hasn’t moved his bowels in weeks; if anything, he feels overworked, a product of too much conceptualizing and not enough feeling, identifiable humanity or sharp ideas. And because Bill doesn’t talk much, he has to emerge largely through his actions and tamped-down physicality, his lowered eyes and head partly obscured by a baseball hat that hangs over them like a visor.
It is, as show people like to say, a committed performance, but it’s also a frustratingly flat one. Less character than conceit, Bill isn’t a specific father and uneasy American abroad; he’s a symbol. McCarthy tips his hand early in the first scene in Oklahoma with the image of Bill precisely framed in the center of a window of a house he’s helping demolish. A tornado has ripped through the region, leveling everything. When Bill pauses to look around, surveying the damage, the camera takes in the weeping survivors, the rubble and ruin. It’s a good setup, brimming with potential, but as the story develops, it becomes evident this isn’t simply a disaster, natural or otherwise. It’s an omen.
Like “Nomadland” and any number of Sundance movies, “Stillwater” seizes on the classic figure of the American stoic, the rugged individualist whose self-reliance has become a trap, a dead end and — if all the narrative parts cohere — a tragedy. And like “Nomadland,” “Stillwater” tries to say something about the United States (“Ya Got Trouble,” as the Music Man sings) without turning the audience off by calling out specific names or advancing an ideological position. Times are tough, Americans are too (at least in movies). They keep quiet, soldier on, squint into the sun and the void. Bad things happen and it’s somebody’s fault, but it’s all so very vague.
Stillwater Rated R for violence and language. Running time: 2 hour 20 minutes. In theaters.
Manohla Dargis has been the co-chief film critic since 2004. She started writing about movies professionally in 1987 while earning her M.A. in cinema studies at New York University, and her work has been anthologized in several books. More about Manohla Dargis
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Matt Damon Makes For an Excellent Unlovable American in Stillwater
Bill Baker, the Oklahoma oil-rig roughneck abroad played by an excellent Matt Damon in Stillwater , is not a Trump voter, but you can understand why one of the women he meets in Marseilles asks him about it outright. It’s not just that he looks like a guy who might have voted for Trump, from his frustrated outburst about “fake news” and insistence of saying grace over every meal down to the particular style of wraparound sunglasses he favors. He embodies a certain instinctive obstinance, a habit of holding on to what he knows and only what he knows, no matter how much the world might change around him. While the people Bill meets in France tend to react as though they’re anticipating an ugly American, the truth is that Bill isn’t the kind of guy who’d go there at all, given a choice. He’s in Marseilles to see his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), who’s in prison for killing her girlfriend, Lina, while there as an exchange student. It’s a crime she insists she’s innocent of, and, five years into her sentence, she’s come across a tenuous new lead she asks her father to pass along to her lawyer, though he ends up taking up the investigation himself.
Stillwater is the new movie from director Tom McCarthy, and it feels like one he’s spent his career preparing for — an enthralling, exasperating, and, above all else, ambitious affair that doesn’t soften or demand sympathy for its difficult main character but does insist on according him his full humanity. McCarthy is best known for 2015’s Spotlight , which won Best Picture, but most of his work as a director has been devoted to the idea of battling back first impressions to get at the complexity of individuals. Each of his early indies — The Station Agent , The Visitor , and Win Win — use a premise of almost-perverse hokiness as the basis for a subdued character study of enormous generosity. Stillwater is a sprawling realization of that same approach, teasing a tawdry international crime thriller and then offering, instead, a portrait of a man trying to make up for past regrets with one big swing and constantly frustrated by his inability to meet the standards he’s set for himself. Bill spends a good part of Stillwater looking for redemption, but the film is more interested in the idea of learning to live with your mistakes.
Bill’s relationship with Allison has been shaped by those mistakes, and we come to understand that she counts on him as her point of contact with the outside world without really trusting him. McCarthy started off as an actor, and he has a way of writing for great performances that seems counterintuitive at first because his movies are so averse to grandstanding or big monologues. But he approaches his characters like they’re iceberg tips, the bulk of their lives a submerged but solid presence that can be sensed, even if it’s mostly unseen. Details about Allison’s childhood and Bill’s drug- and drink-fueled absenteeism emerge slowly from both of them, and it’s clear that while Bill’s been showing up for her regularly, Allison wouldn’t be surprised if he stopped at any moment. He still thinks of a relationship as something that can be fixed rather than something that’s nurtured and maintained, and his eagerness to clear his daughter’s name (while lying to her about her attorney’s inaction) speaks to preference for the cleanness of action. For a while, his determination is effective, and Damon is particularly deft at showing how Bill’s doggedness works without giving the character’s efforts any fish-out-of-water cutesiness.
His blunt-force approach carries him forward until it doesn’t, and when Bill’s amateur detective work stalls out, the film takes a startling turn toward the domestic by way of Virginie ( Call My Agent! ’s Camille Cottin), a Parisian transplant who starts giving Bill translation help, and her ebullient daughter, Maya (the wonderful Lilou Siauvaud). Virginie is part of the local theater scene and has a touch of kamikaze do-gooderism that leads her to open her home to a relative stranger. Her Gallic bohemianism neither overlaps with nor lines up in opposition to Bill’s blue-collar stolidity. It’s her friend who asks if Bill voted for Trump and who’s briefly stymied by his response that he didn’t vote at all because his criminal record forbids it. If it’s never clear how much of a willing enlistee Bill is in his country’s ongoing culture war, the film is also aware of the fact that those schisms don’t export neatly. Bill, still scarred from the way Allison’s crime inflamed press attention because her lover was Arab and female, has no idea what to make of the way that a professor at her school casts her as a privileged American dating a poor girl from the inner city. But Allison didn’t grow up with money, Bill protests, and the man avers that she was nevertheless the one with power in the relationship and that “there is a lot of resentment toward the educational elite.”
Allison wanted to get far away from her father and from everything she knew, but one of the themes of the movie is that she’s more like Bill than she wants to admit. Stillwater can’t get away from its own origins either in the end, and after a delicate and lovely middle section in which the film liberates itself from any obligations to address the murder as something other than an intractable fact, it surrenders to obligations toward plot again. It’s a development that feels as inevitable as a visa expiring, with everyone having to take up the narrative that’s the ostensible reason the film exists, even if it feels artificial compared to what’s come before. At the start of Stillwater , Bill rides home from a post-storm cleanup job back in Oklahoma, and as two of his colleagues talk in subtitled Spanish, the audience is invited into a conversation Bill doesn’t understand. One man marvels at the fact that the destroyed houses are likely to be rebuilt just as they were. “I don’t think Americans like change,” the other observes, to which the first replies, “I don’t think a tornado cares what Americans think.” It’s a discussion that feels like it could apply to the movie they’re a part of, one that lays waste to expectations but ultimately can’t help but go back to the way things always are.
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Review: Matt Damon is a man on a Marseille mission in the uneven but surprising ‘Stillwater’
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At the beginning of “Stillwater,” Bill Baker (Matt Damon), an Oklahoma construction worker, stands amid the remnants of a house that’s recently been destroyed by a tornado. He’s dependably good at his job, even if it’s just a temporary gig, something to tide him over while he looks for a more permanent position on an oil rig. Money and work have been scarce for a while, and the tornado, without affecting him directly, puts a cruel accent on the litany of disasters — alcoholism, unemployment, family estrangement, a criminal record — that his life has become. He’s gotten used to combing through the wreckage; when he leaves town a few beats later, it’s clear he’s not leaving behind much.
Although it draws its title from this Middle American city, most of Tom McCarthy’s methodical and surprising new drama takes place half a world away in the French port city of Marseille, where Bill finds himself on a curious and lonely assignment. He’s visiting his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), who’s spent five years in prison for the murder of her girlfriend, Lena, whom she met while studying abroad in Marseille. The story was loosely inspired by events surrounding the 2007 killing of the British student Meredith Kercher, though McCarthy and his co-writers are not especially interested in a straightforward retelling of that tragedy.
Allison, the movie’s Amanda Knox figure, has always maintained her innocence. With four years left to serve, she asks her father to contact her attorney (Anne Le Ny) with new evidence that might persuade the authorities to reopen her case. A teenager, Akim, has allegedly implicated himself in a scrap of barroom hearsay, though it’s too flimsy a lead to persuade the attorney. But Bill, spying an opportunity to make up for his past negligence as a dad, stubbornly undertakes his own search for the elusive, possibly nonexistent Akim, all while navigating a city and a language that couldn’t feel more foreign.
To him, anyway. Centering its protagonist’s stern, bearded frown in nearly every scene, “Stillwater” registers Bill’s cultural confusion without necessarily indulging it. Unveiled this week at the Cannes Film Festival , a little further along France’s Mediterranean coast, the movie effectively merges the patient investigative rigor of McCarthy’s Oscar-winning newsroom drama “Spotlight” and the cross-cultural humanism of his earlier film “The Visitor.” Put another way, it’s a somber crime thriller wrapped around a sly fish-out-of-water comedy, in which Bill is invariably the butt of the joke.
“I’m a dumbass,” Bill says more than once, and the movie, however sympathetic to his plight, doesn’t really contradict him. Stiff of gait, clenched of jaw and plaid of shirt, Damon strides through the picture with a genial, determined cluelessness from which every lingering vestige of Jason Bourne has been carefully purged. Bill gets an A for effort, but the challenges of a murder investigation — tracing Instagram feeds, chasing down frightened witnesses — would prove daunting even to someone who knows the Marseille waterfront.
Fortunately, Bill meets a friendly bilingual guide in Virginie (a terrific Camille Cottin), a theater actress who regards this Sooner State refugee with kindness, amusement and an almost sociological fascination: Does he own a gun? Did he vote for Trump? (The answers are worth hearing for yourself.) Virginie also has a winsome young daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), who naturally hits it off with Bill immediately, raising the specter of a redemptive second shot at fatherhood. The mutually beneficial arrangement that follows — Virginie helps Bill with his search, Bill becomes her handyman and Maya’s babysitter — is one of those sentimental developments you grudgingly and then gladly accept, because the actors have such warm, involving chemistry and because there’s something irresistible about the kindness of strangers.
The best passages of “Stillwater” allow that kindness to flourish and take center frame, temporary liberating the movie from its dogged procedural template. McCarthy, a straightforward craftsman, has a gift for teasing out the humanity in every unshowy frame, and, working with cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi and editor Tom McArdle, he nicely conveys the passage of time and the blooming of fresh emotional possibilities. Those possibilities become still more heartrending when Allison is allowed out on parole for a day, in scenes that Breslin plays with a wrenching mix of toughness, resignation and despair. Through her eyes, we see the Marseille that she fell in love with and briefly wonder if her crucible of suffering might also mark a potential new beginning.
The filmmakers, of course, have chosen France’s oldest and most diverse city for a reason, given its longstanding reputation as a gritty hotbed of crime and poverty — a reputation that’s been partly fueled by the movies themselves, among them classic thrillers like “The French Connection” and “Army of Shadows” (and the recent “Transit,” a classic in the making). McCarthy has cited Marseille noir novels as an inspiration for his screenplay, which he wrote with Marcus Hinchey and the French writers Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré, who were doubtless crucial in fleshing out a persuasively inhabited street-level portrait of contemporary France. Notably, Bidegain and Debré have also fashioned “Stillwater” into a curious echo of their 2015 neo-western, “Les Cowboys,” another father-daughter rescue story set at a Franco-American cultural crossroads.
In “Les Cowboys,” a white man is driven mad by the realization that his daughter has run off with her Muslim boyfriend. Although it’s cut from different genre cloth, “Stillwater” doesn’t have to dig too deep to uncover similarly ugly sentiments in Marseille as Bill’s search for an Arab suspect brings him face to face with all manner of casual anti-immigrant bigotry. Bill, it’s worth noting, comes off rather better by comparison: He seems appreciably less racist than some of the locals, and if this devout Christian has any negative thoughts about his daughter’s passionate romance with an Arab woman, he keeps them to himself. His mission here isn’t motivated by religion, politics or ideology, but by the simple desire to bring his daughter home. Nothing could be more primal or understandable.
Our sympathetic identification with Bill, in other words, is the reason this movie exists. It’s also the reason a viewer might find “Stillwater” troubling as well as absorbing. This is the story, after all, of a white male American charging into a French Arab community (represented by fine actors including Moussa Maaskri, Nassiriat Mohamed and Idir Azougli) and running roughshod over cultural sensitivities in his aggressive pursuit of what he considers justice. It’s also ostensibly the story of a dead Arab woman who nonetheless remains at the narrative margins and who exists primarily as a catalyst for her lover’s incarceration and potential exoneration.
The standard defense against this criticism is that the filmmakers are smart and self-aware enough to have anticipated it. In this case they’ve also sought to defuse it by treating Bill’s narrative centrality as a point of subversion, a means of rejecting the trumped-up myth of American exceptionalism that he represents. Bill’s outsider status, a source of pathos and comedy in the first two acts, threatens to become a moral liability in the third. McCarthy pushes the thriller narrative in directions more extreme and harrowing than plausible, bringing Bill and Allison’s story to an unexpected point of reckoning. It’s possible to be genuinely moved by that reckoning — and to admire the obvious intelligence and care that have been brought to bear on “Stillwater” — without fully buying the trail of contrivances and compromises it leaves in its wake.
(In English and French with English subtitles) Rating: R, for language Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes Playing: Opens July 30 in general release
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Justin Chang has been a film critic for the Los Angeles Times since 2016. He is the author of the book “FilmCraft: Editing” and serves as chair of the National Society of Film Critics and secretary of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.
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Stillwater refuses to belittle and judge its characters, and challenges viewers to do the same.
Full Review | Jul 27, 2023
Caught me by surprise with its fascinating journey of redemption, acceptance, & Beauty. Don’t get my wrong the movie evolves in ways I did not expect some for the better & some for the bad.
Full Review | Jul 26, 2023
Stillwater is pure drama that turns into a crime thriller when you least expect it. This is Matt Damon‘s best performance in the last 10 years.
Full Review | Original Score: 3.5/5 | Mar 30, 2023
A damn effective drama about the struggles accompanying second chances and unshakable reputations.
Full Review | Original Score: 3.5/5 | Oct 9, 2022
A classic narrative in the style of later Clint Eastwood, the film focuses on the protagonist's quest and his internal transformation. [Full review in Spanish]
Full Review | Original Score: 8/10 | Oct 4, 2022
Stillwater is so much more than its simple logline would lead you to believe, blending sentimentality with suspense to create a brutally captivating concoction.
Full Review | Original Score: 4.5/5 | Sep 1, 2022
I prefer McCarthy’s approach which keeps the characters front-and-center, giving them and their relationships room to grow even if it means running a little long.
Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Aug 17, 2022
The final act turns the heat up a bit, as Bill gets closer and turns to more desperate means. The conclusion will raise some eyebrows, but in the main Stillwater is a solid drama that plays to the crowd effectively.
Full Review | Original Score: 3/5 | Mar 3, 2022
As a work of fiction, Stillwater feels near-masterpiece level with Tom McCarthy, Matt Damon and Abigail Breslin giving possibly the best performances of their careers. The movie, however, is undeniably tied to a real-life tragedy and feels manipulative
Full Review | Feb 12, 2022
The movie really keeps you guessing as to the true motives of the characters with its complex plot.
Full Review | Dec 28, 2021
This might be a crime thriller, but thrill it does not. Slow, distracted and unfocused, its narrative makes giant leaps one moment and drags its feet the next.
Full Review | Original Score: 3/5 | Dec 7, 2021
If we can't take responsibility for our own choices, then there can be no moving forward and your life will become a prison of your own making.
Full Review | Original Score: 3/5 | Oct 26, 2021
A slow burn that is far longer than it needs to be to get its point across. However, Matt Damon brings a lot of heart to this one, and makes it worth watching.
If tied to the real-life case, it's irresponsible and irredeemable. Separated from these knotty ties to the real world and accepted as a piece of fiction, it's a decent drama that begins strong before eventually losing its bearings and its believability.
Full Review | Original Score: 2.5/4 | Oct 23, 2021
Absent the sheen of a noble cause, Stillwater is a frustrating effort without a point.
Full Review | Original Score: C- | Oct 23, 2021
There's a dangerous lack of verisimilitude that hangs over the entire film. But McCarthy remains firm in his decision not to offer the usual satisfactions expected of these kind of American films. [Full Review in Spanish]
Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Oct 18, 2021
Within half an hour its drama loses emotional records and dries up like an oil well in the desert when Matt Damon plays an ordinary hero lost in Marseille. [Full review in Spanish]
Full Review | Original Score: 5/10 | Sep 10, 2021
Stillwater's sharp emotional claws shred Bill's moral authority and the myth of American exceptionalism. In ways both shocking and right, director Tom McCarthy reinvents the story seemingly in real time.
Full Review | Original Score: 4/4 | Sep 2, 2021
Stillwater is the sort of film Hollywood used to make effortlessly: big stars, intriguing characters, glamorous setting, juicy set-up, some minor violence.
Full Review | Sep 2, 2021
Tom McCarthy's vision has its moments of thrills and uplifting humour but it takes on a very disjointed path that leads to a questionable resolution on a number of story points and an absurd route of justice.
Full Review | Original Score: 3/5 | Aug 31, 2021
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Common sense media reviewers.
Excellent, character-driven crime drama; violence, language.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
Movie is mainly about making hard choices to help
Bill Baker faces danger and difficult odds to free
Main character is beat up by a gang -- punched, ki
Woman swims topless; her breasts are semi-visible
Very strong language, with uses of "f--k," "s--t,"
Instagram is part of the story.
Cigarette smoking. Main character lives a sober li
Parents need to know that Stillwater is a drama about an Oklahoma man named Bill Baker (Matt Damon) who travels to Marseille, France, to help his daughter (Abigail Breslin) get out of prison. A group of men beats Bill up, punching and kicking him, with bloody wounds shown. Bill shoulder-slams another…
Movie is mainly about making hard choices to help one person at others' expense. The choice comes at a high price, and the price is paid, but the movie indicates that there was no other course of action for these characters; they would have made the same choices again.
Positive Role Models
Bill Baker faces danger and difficult odds to free his daughter from prison; he stops at nothing in pursuit of his goal, even sacrificing his own happiness and possibly his own freedom. At the same time, he offers a portrait of the most stubborn, bullheaded, and marginally rude qualities drawn from stereotypes about people from the United States. He's sometimes kind and helpful, but other times he makes poor choices and acts brashly. In a smaller role, Virginie is extremely helpful to a man she barely knows, offering to translate, drive him around, etc. Supporting characters make racist remarks.
Violence & Scariness
Main character is beat up by a gang -- punched, kicked. Bloody wounds shown. Main character shoulder-slams another character, punches him hard in the face, knocks him out. Character attempts suicide by hanging (off-screen); shown in hospital. Another reference to suicide. Reference to punching someone.
Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Violence & Scariness in your kid's entertainment guide.
Sex, Romance & Nudity
Woman swims topless; her breasts are semi-visible under the water and from the side. Kissing, foreplay. Woman in bra and underwear.
Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Sex, Romance & Nudity in your kid's entertainment guide.
Very strong language, with uses of "f--k," "s--t," "dumbass," "damn," "hell," "scumbags." Racist dialogue includes "look at all these monkeys," "they all look alike," etc.
Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Language in your kid's entertainment guide.
Products & Purchases
Drinking, drugs & smoking.
Cigarette smoking. Main character lives a sober lifestyle; several references to his earlier alcohol dependency.
Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Drinking, Drugs & Smoking in your kid's entertainment guide.
Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Stillwater is a drama about an Oklahoma man named Bill Baker ( Matt Damon ) who travels to Marseille, France, to help his daughter ( Abigail Breslin ) get out of prison. A group of men beats Bill up, punching and kicking him, with bloody wounds shown. Bill shoulder-slams another character and punches him hard in the face, knocking him out. A character attempts suicide, and suicide is discussed. A woman swims topless, with a breast semi-visible in an underwater shot. Characters kiss and undress each other; a woman is seen in her underwear. Language is quite strong, with frequent uses of "f--k," "s--t," and other words; supporting characters also make racist remarks. People smoke cigarettes, and Bill is said to be sober, having once had an alcohol dependency. Loosely inspired by the true story of Amanda Knox, this is a meticulous, detailed, slow-burn movie that goes much deeper than its plot synopsis suggests; it's dark, but quite thoughtful and powerful. To stay in the loop on more movies like this, you can sign up for weekly Family Movie Night emails .
Where to Watch
Videos and photos.
- Parents say (3)
- Kids say (3)
Based on 3 parent reviews
A slow burn character driven film
What's the story.
In STILLWATER, Bill Baker ( Matt Damon ) is an oil worker in Stillwater, Oklahoma. He prepares for a trip, the latest of many, to Marseille, France, to visit his daughter, Allison ( Abigail Breslin ). Allison has been in prison for five years after being found guilty of murdering her roommate, but she has always maintained her innocence -- and now she has an idea who the real killer could have been. She asks Bill to deliver a letter to her lawyer, but the lawyer immediately shuts down the idea. In his hotel, Bill befriends a local woman, Virginie ( Camille Cottin ), and her 9-year-old daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). Unable to afford a private investigator, Bill decides to stay and hunt for the killer himself, with Virginie's help. He starts staying at her place -- and to become a father figure for Maya. Time passes, and then the killer shows his face.
Is It Any Good?
Like director Tom McCarthy 's best movies, this slow-burn neo-noir unfolds as a detailed, nuanced character study, with no detail too small and plot twists layered expertly into the tapestry. A plot synopsis or a trailer can't do justice to the impressive way that Stillwater plays out, with McCarthy ( The Station Agent , Spotlight , etc.) making full use of the film's 140-minute running time to dig deep into human emotions and hard choices. One of the key scenes -- Bill spotting the killer at a crowded soccer match -- comes at a moment after the movie has lulled us into a sense of comfort. Consequently, the discovery comes as a jaw-dropping shock rather than a routine twist.
In the midst of the storytelling, Stillwater deals with outsiders' presence in places that are foreign to them and the way that they can be viewed through lenses of hate, suspicion, or mistrust. Bill is portrayed as a bullheaded, pushy American, with sunglasses parked over his grim face or perched on top of his dirty baseball cap. (Damon gives an impeccable, immersive performance.) He shoves his way into situations, demanding to know whether anyone speaks English, unafraid -- or unaware -- of being rude. His slow transformation into someone who cares about others feels genuine, even though it can't fix his ultimate character flaw, which is the reason the movie is really a noir. In the end, Stillwater brilliantly, brutally turns its lens back on the Americans.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about Stillwater 's violence . How did it make you feel? Was it exciting? Shocking? What did the movie show or not show to achieve this effect? Why is that important?
How does the movie handle the topic of suicide? When is it important to talk about mental health, especially if you're worried about a friend or family member? What resources are available to help both kids and adults ?
Does Bill make the right decision by kidnapping Akim? What does he gain from this choice? What does he lose? What were his other options?
Is smoking glamorized here? Are there consequences for smoking? Why does that matter?
How is Bill's alcohol dependency discussed? Is his sobriety shown in a positive light?
- In theaters : July 30, 2021
- On DVD or streaming : August 20, 2021
- Cast : Matt Damon , Abigail Breslin , Camille Cottin
- Director : Tom McCarthy
- Inclusion Information : Female actors
- Studio : Focus Features
- Genre : Drama
- Run time : 140 minutes
- MPAA rating : R
- MPAA explanation : language
- Last updated : June 22, 2023
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.
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