STILLWATER (NETFLIX) (2021)
SYNOPSIS: A dramatic thriller directed by Academy Award® winner Tom McCarthy and starring Matt Damon, Stillwater follows an American oil-rig roughneck from Oklahoma who travels to Marseille to visit his estranged daughter, in prison for a murder she claims she did not commit. Confronted with language barriers, cultural differences, and a complicated legal system, Bill builds a new life for himself in France as he makes it his personal mission to exonerate his daughter.
Based loosely on the Amanda Knox case where the latter is accused of murdering her flatmate in Italy, Stillwater is a fictionalised account of the crime. Instead of focusing on the central figure, the story follows her father as he attempts to reopen the case by tracking down the supposed murderer.
Bill Baker (Matt Damon), an unemployed roughneck from Stillwater, Oklahoma travels frequently to Marseille, France to visit his imprisoned daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin) who is convicted of murdering her lover and currently in the midst of serving a nine year sentence. All these while, Allison maintains her innocence and during her father’s visit, she passed him a note to give to her defense lawyer claiming to have new information on the killer.
However, the lawyer refuses to embark further on the case and Bill has no choice but to seek out new evidence on his own so as to prove her daughter’s innocence. Enlisting the help of a theatre actress, Virginie (Camille Cottin) as a translator, Bill manages to track down an Arab young man named Akim. But is it enough to get Allison out of prison and at what price must Bill pay in the end?
Stillwater sounds like a trashy Liam Neeson action thriller on paper but the movie co-written and directed by Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) is definitely not that sort of movie. The drama spends most of its time with Bill and Virginie and her young daughter, Maya. Perhaps as a form of redemption or atonement for being an absence father to Allison, Bill makes things up by being the responsible surrogate father figure to Maya. As the roughneck American stays with Virginie over the months, romance develops between the unlikely two as well.
From a crime story perspective, Stillwater becomes pretty much unbearable by the end of the second act as the narrative forgoes the initial investigation portion and the Allison character that it turns into a mundane tale about working class Bill as he explores his new role on foreign soil. With a runtime of over two hours, the story only starts to pick up its pace in the last 30 minutes or so and that is saddled with a twist that hardly justify for all the earlier developments.
Yet Stillwater should be commended for showing the darker side of France instead of the usual glitz and glamour of Paris. Marseille looks like a seedy French version of Bronx under the lensing of Masanobu Takayanagi (Out of the Furnace). Of course, the excellent performance of Damon as a very believable, humanised roughneck adds points to the less than compelling narrative.
As a crime drama based on such a true gripping case, Stillwater is arguably a missed opportunity.
Review by Linus Tee