Strangely, what makes Stillwater so narratively ambitious also turns out to be its biggest flaw: A dramatic riff on the Amanda Knox case, this film imagines a similar story, as seen through the eyes of the suspect’s unreliable father. That shift in focus results in a movie that’s extremely well-acted and passionately made, but also overlong, emotionally aloof, and jarringly uneven. In an awkward irony, Stillwater navigates some choppy seas.
As the story begins, Bill Baker (Matt Damon) lives and works near Stillwater, Oklahoma. An unemployed rig worker, Bill will do any grunt work for any pay. When we first meet him, Bill clears a tornado disaster site, smashing and trashing the battered husk that had once been someone’s home. He sees weeping families, sifting through the rubble for soggy photo albums and other keepsakes, and something in their grief seems to reignite his own: Bill soon flies to Marseille for a visit with his daughter.
Turns out, Allison Baker (Abigail Breslin) is plunk in the middle of a lengthy prison sentence. She had been a college student, and she fell in love with Lina, an Arab girl. They moved in together, but Lina’s promiscuity soon led to some ugly confrontations. Ultimately, Lina ended up dead, and Allison became the prime suspect. Bill arrives with fresh motivation to clear his daughter’s name and bring her home. Of course, Allison isn’t wild about Bill’s meddling: He’s a recovering alcoholic and drug-user who forced his daughter to endure years of erratic behavior. On top of all that, Bill has also displayed considerable skill at mangling everything he touches.
The French authorities politely turn Bill away when he tries to get the case reopened. Undeterred, Bill decides to turn amateur sleuth and question witnesses and suspects himself. As he doesn’t speak a lick of French, Bill enlists the help of Virginie (Camille Cotton), a single mother who lives in the apartment next to him. She comes in tandem with Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), her plucky, precocious eight-year-old daughter. Mother and daughter soon develop a deep affection for Bill, while he spots a chance to make amends for the sins of his former life.
Anyone with at least a superficial familiarity with the Amanda Knox murder case will spot unsubtle similarities to the events of this film. Knox herself has strongly condemned Stillwater as a sensationalistic attempt to exploit her misfortune and damage her reputation. And, to a certain degree, I understand her complaint: If Allison is meant to be a rough sketch of Amanda, it’s not a flattering one. But I also get the sense that the filmmakers only borrowed the most general details of Knox’s story to build something new. Hollywood has long enjoyed generous latitude when it comes to dramatic license, so Knox’s fiery protestation will do little to change that.
Besides, this really isn’t the daughter’s story. Director Tom McCarthy, who also serves as part of a platoon of four screenwriters, chooses to display this narrative through the myopic vision of the Bill Baker character, and he turns out to be a much less interesting protagonist: Alternately aloof, subdued, and grouchy, Bill must solve a mystery he can’t fully grasp, on behalf of a daughter he can’t relate to, in a language he can’t speak.
Indeed, the film works hard to present Bill as a fish flopping and gasping on the shore. The French characters regard him as something of a redneck curiosity. They giggle and ask him if he owns any guns or voted for Trump. (“I didn’t vote,” he says, defiantly.) These scenes could’ve underlined Bill’s emotional struggle to maintain orbit of a terrible situation he can’t seem to change, but they only demonstrate what a chilly, dull character he really is.
Damon does what he can with such a role, vanishing into an Oklahoma accent and a fluffy trailer-park goatee. As with the Bourne films, his star power elevates the character well beyond what’s written. In the hands of a lesser actor, Bill Baker would be much less appealing. That goes ditto for Breslin, whose likability almost overcomes the petulance of Allison.
Stillwater‘s real heart beats with the performances of Cottin and Siauvaud, who play Bill’s adopted family. Cottin brings real empathy to Virginie, who selflessly takes all of Bill’s hard-luck drama. Even better, Siauvaud strikes up genuine chemistry with Damon, thus making their burgeoning friendship feel believable. This film works best when these three actors share the screen. It also highlights Stillwater‘s unevenness whenever the script shifts back to gritty crime drama.
All that leaves us with a puzzle where the pieces look better than the finished picture. Two hours and twenty minutes is way too long for a movie that only works in fits and starts. There’s a gripping story buried within Stillwater, somewhere between a young girl convicted of murder and a broken father on the spiritual mend. We’re just watching it from the least compelling angle.
140 min. R.