A wise, great man once said: “I used to think Matt Damon was a bit of a Streisand but I think he’s rocking the s*** in this one”. That man, of course, was Paul Rudd in The 40-Year-Old Virgin who, despite its slightly crass undertones, did sum up the feelings of many of us about the Oscar winner before he showed us all his versatility including using a magazine to beat an assailant to a pulp. He’s more than just the Bourne franchise, but it has now become his calling card in some respects, so much so that in his new film Stillwater, you’re waiting for him to explode and go full Liam Neeson in his long, painful search for the truth behind his daughter’s term in a Marseille prison.
But Stillwater, from fellow Oscar winner Tom McCarthy, co-writer and director of 2015’s spellbinding Spotlight, doesn’t go exactly how you may have expected it before watching it and instead focuses on the human drama and sacrifice at the centre of it instead of the vengeful narrative it could have been. Damon plays Bill, a roughneck former oil-rigger from Alabama who commutes to France a few times a year to visit his estranged daughter Alison (Abigail Breslin), who has served five of her nine-year sentence for killing her girlfriend, who was also a fellow student.
She continuously claims her innocence and, on this visit, she tells Bill that some new information may hold the key to help get her released. Judges and former lawyers won’t reopen the case so Bill, with the help of local actress Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her precocious daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), takes it upon himself to find the truth, whatever the outcome.
If you’re expecting fisticuffs, thrills, and an unquantifiable body count you are in the wrong place: this is the antithesis of Taken, in fact, it’s nothing like the overly successful franchise, just to reiterate and realign expectations. While taking its inspiration from the Amanda Knox/Meredith Kercher murder trial that shocked the world in 2007 and beyond, McCarthy’s languid but fluid drama-come-thriller is about redemption, reconnection, and hope in the darkest places.
An absent father in his daughter’s life and more concerned with drink and drugs, all of which led to her fleeing to France, Bill is a changed man and his long, prayer-led search for justice has given him new purpose and while he takes some warming to, Damon’s poise and power mean he’s never boring. Indeed, the middle act of the film is its strongest, as Bill begins to discover a life beyond his own self-assigned prison and find both peace and love.
McCarthy’s controlled and restrained direction is again superb, and he and his trio of co-writers delve deep into themes of guilt, fatherhood, and US/French political perceptions (could Bill’s possible allegiance to Trump be his recompense for his dark past?) but when it points its compass back towards the abyss, the film dives off a cliff just as Bill does in the beautiful oceans of southern France. If it had stuck the landing, we’d be talking awards here, sadly the entry isn’t quite splash-free.
Crime, Drama | USA, 2021 | 15 | 6th August 2021 (UK) | Cinema | Entertainment One UK | Dir.Tom McCarthy | Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, Camille Cottin, Deanna Dunagan, Robert Peters