Matt Damon delivers an incredibly nuanced performance in Stillwater, the riveting tale of a father who goes to extraordinary lengths to prove his daughter’s innocence. Damon’s character’s emotional detachment has resulted in a dysfunctional relationship with his only child. Stillwater explores that broken relationship in unexpected ways.
Bill Baker (Damon) is a hardworking laborer from Stillwater, Oklahoma who struggles to get by. Bill’s a tiny cog in a big machine, a nameless, thankless worker bee who’s part of a crew that cleans up after disasters. (He’s been taking jobs as they come when he can’t find work on an oil rig.) The clean-up job pays the bills, but just barely.
From the moment Bill arrives on screen, it’s apparent he’s a man of few words. Bill’s a single dad who leads a simple life and doesn’t need much. His entire existence at this moment in time is dedicated to earning enough money to keep the lights on and allow him to travel to France to visit his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin).
It’s only after Bill checks into a Best Western in Marseilles that we understand there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. This is a man who would move mountains to free his daughter from prison. It’s been nearly five years since Allison was convicted of murdering her female roommate and Bill has consistently made the trek to France to visit her. He’s never given up and remains convinced she’s innocent.
After spending a few years behind bars, Allison now believes she’s obtained evidence that could lead to the identity of the real murderer. She enlists her dad’s help – but not to help track down the killer. Allison doesn’t believe he’s capable of that and wants him to simply deliver a letter to her attorney with the new information. She doesn’t have any faith in her father’s ability to handle something as complex as an investigation. There’s very little real trust on her part that her dad can do much more than clean her laundry and keep her updated on goings-on at home during his visits.
Allison greatly misjudges both her attorney’s reaction to the new lead and her father’s commitment to her cause. Once Bill realizes there’s a legitimate possibility of finding the person who really murdered the roommate, he’s like a dog with a bone. Bill becomes fixated on conducting his own investigation, come hell or high water.
Unfortunately, there’s a language gap and Bill takes a bull in a China shop approach to getting answers. He fails, miserably. It’s only after theatre actress Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her wise-beyond-her-years young daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), step up and volunteer to lend a hand that Bill’s investigation is able to move forward.
Virginie sees a project when she looks at Bill and takes pity on the poor American who resists changing his bulldog approach to getting information. Bill’s tactics have alienated some potential witnesses; prior to Virginie’s help he epitomizes the Ugly American. But with Virginie by his side, Bill allows himself time to understand the cultural differences and find a way to actually connect with these kind strangers. By opening up and making himself vulnerable to Virginie and Maya, he also learns how to connect on a deeper emotional level with his daughter.
The trailers attempt to sell Stillwater as a thriller. It’s not. There are a few sporadic scenes that might fit that description, but the film’s actually a character-driven relationship drama with two concurrent storylines driving it forward: the first involving a father/daughter relationship and the second, much more fulfilling plotline involving Bill’s relationship with a single mother and her bright young daughter.
Damon is so damn good at playing nice guys, but what he delivers in Stillwater is much more subtle than his past performances. Damon’s lines of dialogue are sparse, and nearly all of what he communicates on screen comes via his eyes and the way he holds his body. It’s fascinating to watch Damon play this ordinary small-town guy whose complicated story arc moves through a progression of increasingly emotional moments. Do we root for him? Of course. But there’s also a nearly visceral reaction to his unorthodox approach to obtaining answers.
Matt Damon and Camille Cottin have amazing chemistry, and their characters’ relationship has an incredible amount of layers. Cottin draws in the audience and her story is nearly as much a hero’s journey as Damon’s. Lilou Siayaud is equally terrific as the child who understands more than she should and who sees something in Bill that makes her trust this strange American. And Abigail Breslin, who has less screen time than Damon, Cottin, or Siayaud, is great as the distrustful daughter who’s having a difficult time adjusting to life behind bars.
Stillwater’s got far more going on than the trailers tease. Writer/director Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) and co-writers Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noé Debré’s screenplay has depth and a gritty realness to it. These are characters who react (most of the time) and interact as normal, who go through emotional journeys that are recognizable and heartbreaking.
Stillwater’s a tale of loyalty, love, familial bonds, and betrayal driven by topnotch performances. Damon has never been better.
Opening Date: July 30, 2021
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes
Studio: Focus Features