Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”) delivers a thoughtful and tense family drama that touches on many different genres. Based on the real story of Amanda Knox, “Stillwater” boasts fine performances and its dramatic center is what makes this story so arresting, not without tears.
Bill (Matt Damon) is an Oklahoma oil rig worker. He is a strong silent type, conservative, religious and shy, and the famous actor all but disappears in his role. Steady jobs have nearly evaporated as the town of Stillwater has recently been devastated by a tornado. Bill soldiers on, biting his lip and hunching his plaid shoulders. He has one goal: to get his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) released from prison in Marseilles, France. Bill is a man of very few words. His granite muscles are uncomfortable and suppressed with the sad fate of his daughter.
Mainstream films would treat this circumstance as a hero film: the macho father using guns and a big sweaty bicep. Might makes right.
Director McCarthy and Matt Damon have the fine judgment to use subtlety and restraint here. Less is more. Lines of worry are etched deep in Bill’s face. His face is cemented with concern and weariness. When Bill walks, he marches. This is a man used to getting his way but when Bill comes into a French office, he sometimes shrinks.
Allison pleads with her dad to do everything possible to reopen her case and passes a letter of new information to him.
But Bill is troubled by the fact that he is a former felon and has been an absent father. Though we don’t know what happened to young Bill, it was bad enough and a constant cloud of formless guilt oppresses him.
Through a chance episode, Bill encounters the nine-year-old Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) and her empathetic mother, Virginie (Camille Cottin). A friendship ensues with mom and the amusing Maya, who grows attached to Bill and vice versa.
Bill learns that the real perpetrator, Akim (Idir Azougli), of his daughter’s crime exists. But he has to gather evidence. Virginie is vital with assistance.
As Bill and Allison grow frustrated by the case and a bit distant, Bill grows closer to Virginie and Maya, subconsciously wanting to start over and be a good and present father figure to the adorable ebullient Maya. As Bill says to “do things right.”
During a live soccer game, shared between Bill and Maya, Bill sees the infamous Akim. For the first time, we are unsure of what the straight-arrow Bill might do. He is a good man, but he is also driven and vexed by circumstance. The plot pivots into film noir territory, where it almost, but not quite, loses its footing.
The magnetism between Bill, Maya and Virginie holds and it thankfully never goes completely into pulp territory.
Lilou Siauvaud is wonderful and she will pull on your heart. Breslin too is fine here, giving the right amount of frost and fire to a mediocre father who was unavailable or unreachable to his daughter.
The core of the drama is between Damon as a surrogate (wanting and wishing to make things correct a second time around) and the spontaneous and precocious Siauvaud. Though their final scene echoes other classic tearjerkers, the emotion is given with softness and delicacy, yet one will invariably reach for tissue relief.
Indeed, Stillwater, Oklahoma is tinged in a jaundiced yellow despite the bright colors (akin to the lighting in “Jaws”) compared with the Spring-like natural light of Marseilles.
Father and daughter converse again, a family as if painted by Grant Wood. Disturbing it is to hear Bill say “He can’t” in reply to Allison asking him to go back to Virginie and Maya.
The art of Matt Damon is that he is able to play a noir character, bringing both pain and acceptance right into the 21st century. Matt Damon is almost supernatural in his guise and he has never been better.
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org