Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Matt Damon as a construction worker trying to prove his daughter’s innocence in Stillwater
"It progresses in the same sort of manner as leading man Damon in that it's big and bulky, slow and purposeful but somehow, despite this, quite compelling." | Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

The latest slowburn drama from Tom McCarthy has been picking up plenty of heat, both from Damon's comments about homophobic slurs and from Amanda Knox - the American who was wrongly jailed for four years in Italy after her roommate Meredith Kercher was murdered before being acquitted - whose experience McCarthy has said "inspired his film". Knox doesn't see it that way, arguing the director is "profiting" from her and "distorting her reputation" not to mention "amplifying a false narrative".

Watching the film, you can't help but feel McCarthy is having his cake and eating it somewhat by alluding to the case and drawing on unfounded rumours that took up pages of newsprint at the time while simultaneously claiming distance. The action, though set in France, does have strong elements of the real story - an American student, Allison (Abigail Breslin, unusually for McCarthy, not well cast or at least not well directed) in jail in Marseilles for the murder of her roommate, and a mystery man who may be the perpetrator. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of the "inspiration", however, this is a film that sits firmly within McCarthy's back catalogue of outings including The Station Agent, Win-Win and The Visitor, being chiefly the story of a lonely man that evolves into character-driven relationship piece considering both the families we are born into and those we construct for ourselves.

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It progresses in the same sort of manner as leading man Damon - as Allison's father Bill, a blue collar type who hasn't always been there for her but who now wants to do anything he can to get her out of jail - in that it's big and bulky, slow and purposeful but somehow, despite this, quite compelling. He is, of course, a fish out of water, in France - in fact, he might well be a fish on the moon. But when he uncovers a new lead in the case, he becomes determined to stick around to try to track down a mystery man at a party. There's a small Olympic village of writers involved too, including Thomas Bidegan (Rust and Bone, A Prophet) and Noé Debré (Dheepan) as well as McCarthy himself and I wonder if that's why the tone shifts about so much - with what amounts to the 'thriller' element of the plot largely forgotten about in the film's mid-section.

On the plus side, that means the film moves away its more formulaic elements - though it will, sadly, be back to those - as an initially platonic (and I wish it stayed that way), relationship between Bill and French actress Virgine (Camille Cottin) blossoms. Leaving aside the unlikeliness of all this - and odd coincidence is something the film draws on repeatedly - the relationship is made convincing thanks to excellent work on the part of the actors, supplemented beautifully by young star Lilou Siavaud making a big impression as Virgine's young daughter Maya and who gives the film a lot of much needed heart. But though McCarthy showed he could tackle a serious adaptation with the Oscar-winning Spotlight, here he comes a bit unstuck when he reverts to the tacked on thriller elements. They arrive in odd places and are treated with an energy sucking seriousness - it reminded me in some ways of the tonal problems of Noomi Rapace's The Secrets We Keep, which also has some tough to swallow basement scenes, while the moments between Bill and Allison have escaped from a much more melodramatic movie. McCarthy just about keeps us onside for the film's duration but it's a shame he didn't take a leaf out of Bill's book and commit himself to a single course of action.

We'd like to thank Cineworld Edinburgh for offering the chance to catch Stillwater at their Unlimited screening. They currently have a Secret Screening on August 11, open for advance bookings.

Reviewed on: 06 Aug 2021
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Stillwater packshot
An American oil rig worker attempts to clear his daughter's name in France, where she is imprisoned.
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Director: Tom McCarthy

Writer: Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré, Marcus Hinchey, Tom McCarthy

Starring: Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, Camille Cottin, Deanna Dunagan, Ginifer Ree, Robert Peters, Lena Harmon, Ryan Music, Moussa Maaskri, Dustin Wilson, Justin France, Thomas Rivas, April Warren, Gary Sievers, Lisandro Boccacci

Year: 2021

Runtime: 140 minutes

Country: US

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