Stillwater (2021) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): An American dad stuck in Marseilles

Tom McCarthy’s latest film “Stillwater” is calm and patient in its story and character development, and I admire its thoughtful restraint to some degrees although I felt quite impatient as often noticing its weak aspects during my viewing. While it is mostly anchored well by the humble lead performance at its center, the movie is a bit too predictable and contrived especially during its last act, and I was only left with hollow impressions when the movie finally reached to its final scene, which is rather middling instead of being dramatically impactful enough to linger on our mind.

Matt Damon, who admirably manages to dial down his usual star quality a lot here in this film, is Bill Baker, a plain Oklahoma oil worker who has been quietly dealing with one serious personal matter in his barren life. He has a daughter to whom he has been not particularly close since his wife died many years ago, and Allison (Abigail Breslin) did not have much problem with going to Marseilles, France for her study four years ago, but then she was arrested and then charged of the murder of her female lover with whom she lived for a while in Marseilles. At that time, her case, which is clearly a loosely fictional version of the Amanda Knox case in 2007, drew lots of attention from the media and the public, and she was eventually found guilty as charged before being sentenced to several years of imprisonment.

Anyway, Baker does not expect anything at all when he glumly comes to Marseilles four years later just for seeing his daughter during next two weeks, but then there comes a little surprise request from Allison when they are having a brief private moment between them in the prison. All he has to do is simply delivering a letter, which is incidentally written in French, to the lawyer who handled her cast at that time, and he dutifully follows her request without any hesitation, but, after reading this letter, Allison’s lawyer flatly tells him later that whatever Allison is trying to tell via her letter will not change anything at all.

Understandably perplexed, Baker begins to delve into the case for himself, and he soon gets to know about what is written in Allison’s letter. According to a hearsay she recently acquired somehow, there is some Arab guy who told others at a party that he is actually the one who committed that murder, and this guy also happens to be the one with whom Allison happened to be right before the estimated time of the murder. Shortly after learning of this small but significant possibility of getting his daughter exonerated and then released, Baker embarks on the search for this Arab guy, but, of course, he soon finds himself being no more than a fish out of water because he is a foreigner who cannot speak French at all from the start.

Fortunately, there is actually someone who can help Baker a bit besides being a translator for him. That person in question is a struggling single mother actress named Virginie (Camille Cottin), and, though their first encounter at the hotel where both of them happened to stay was not exactly pleasant, she agrees to help Baker when he later comes to her current residence. Although her character is more or less than a convenient plot element, Cottin did a fine job of imbuing her supporting role with warm humanity and gentle charm, and young performer Lilou Siauvaud holds her small own place well around Cottin and Damon as Virginie’s little plucky daughter.

Now this looks like a familiar set up for mystery thriller plot, but the screenplay by McCarthy and his co-writers Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noé Debré takes a leisurely route instead. Like any flawed heroes of mystery drama movies, Baker comes to cause more mess and complication in his and his daughter’s situation, but he subsequently tries to compensate for what he inadvertently caused, and that is where some of the best moments in the film come. As coming to live along with Virginie and her daughter, Baker is glad to have something stable in his life through these two people who come to mean a lot to him, and he also comes to have some moments of reconciliation with his daughter, though, not so surprisingly, that is not so easy for both of them.

Unfortunately, the movie takes a left turn after this part, and that is where it comes to lose our interest as well as its narrative momentum. For example, what follows after Baker makes a very drastic decision for his daughter does not generate much tension at all while being quite flat and predictable to the core, and we are not so surprised by how his consequent circumstance is eventually resolved – or what is accidentally revealed to him around that narrative point.

At least, Damon’s understated acting dutifully carries the film to the end, and he is always engaging as tentatively responding to several main cast members surrounding him. While he and Cottin are convincing in their characters’ relationship development along the story, his several key scenes with Siauvaud are presented well with unadorned tenderness, and Abigail Breslin brings some brittle qualities to her rather perfunctory scenes with Damon.

In conclusion, “Stillwater” is not a total dud at all, and it often shows McCarthy’s strength as a good character drama movie director, but the overall result is still relatively mediocre compared to a number of better films in McCarthy’s career. Besides his Oscar-winning film “Spotlight” (2015), he also gave us “The Station Agent” (2003) and “The Visitor” (2007), and I assure you that you will a better time with any of these excellent films.

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