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Review: Stillwater

July 30, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Tom McCarthy has had a very interesting career as a filmmaker, starting out with small indie films like The Station Agent and The Visitor, before moving on to receive a story credit on Pixar’s Up, and to direct the Oscar-winning Spotlight.

McCarthy followed that movie up with the quirky and surprisingly endearing Disney Plus Original Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made just last year, which isn’t half as strange as the movie he made right before Spotlight; the poorly received Adam Sandler shoe fantasy The Cobbler. Put simply, to call his filmography eclectic would be a massive understatement.

Now McCarthy returns to the world of prestige filmmaking with his latest, Stillwater, which is fresh off of a splashy premiere at Cannes. The film is a decent mix of crime thriller and family drama that is a bit overlong and uneven in parts, but also well acted and mostly engaging. It’s the sort of meaty adult drama with complex moral themes that offers a fine change of pace from more action-oriented summer blockbusters, and is worth seeing on that front.

The film follows Bill (Matt Damon), a rough and tumble working class guy from Stillwater, Oklahoma who goes to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) in Marseilles, France. But, through a fine bit of show don’t tell filmmaking, it soon becomes clear that she is in prison. Allison is incarcerated for the death of her girlfriend, an Arab immigrant, a murder that she insists she did not commit. But when she presents her dad with a new lead on the potential killer, Bill becomes determined to prove that his daughter is innocent and wrongly imprisoned.

At the hotel where he is staying, Bill befriends a young French girl named Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) and her stage actress mother Virginie (Camille Cottin), and this relationship comes to make up the bulk of the film’s second half. It’s here that Stillwater deviates from the expected path. While the trailers suggest that it might be something more akin to a high-brow take on Liam Neeson’s Taken franchise, this is actually a slight misdirection, and the film is more of a simmering family drama than an all-out thriller or action movie.

McCarthy, who co-wrote the screenplay with three other writers, ensures that the film’s morals are anything but black and white, with the racist and xenophobic attitudes that Bill encounters from the locals when digging around about the case adding new wrinkles to his quest for justice. Even as the film becomes somewhat heavy-handed and starts to strain some credibility in its last act, the story is kept engaging thanks to strong performances.

Damon does solid and nicely understated work as a sort of all-American everyman struggling to navigate the European justice system, providing a compelling anchor for the film throughout its twists and turns. Breslin also does solid work in a comeback performance of sorts that builds upon the early promise that she showed as a child actor in Little Miss Sunshine. And, speaking of child actors, newcomer Siauvaud really shines as Maya, building a strong onscreen bond with Damon’s Bill despite the language barrier between their two characters.

The somewhat morally ambiguous nature of the ending does seem destined to divide audiences. The 138 minute running time is also felt during the midsection, which branches off into a few subplots including one about French theatre, though I will admit that a shorter running time likely would have made the characters feel underdeveloped. What Stillwater succeeds at offering is a dramatic thriller that is meant to challenge audiences in more ways than one, with a few moments that continue to linger.

Stillwater is now playing in theatres. It’s being distributed in Canada by Focus Features.

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