Stillwater (2021)

TOM McCARTHY

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB

USA, 2021

, , , , , . Screenplay by Tom McCarthy, , , . Cinematography by . Produced by , , , Tom McCarthy. Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

plays a midwestern roughneck who finishes a gig and has no plans for the future as he gets on an airplane to Marseilles to visit his daughter (). She’s in prison for having stabbed her girlfriend five years earlier and is still intent on proving her innocence, telling him that she has found out about a possible eyewitness with information that could free her from serving the rest of her sentence. The lawyers on the case tell Damon that there’s no chance that this could help, so he decides to investigate on his own, taking a new friend he meets at his hotel () to translate as he dives into the city’s roughest neighbourhoods to find the young man who is possibly the real culprit. His search brings harm upon him thanks to his inability (and unwillingness) to realize that, despite being a confident American, he’s a stranger in this place. He stays in France anyway, renting a room in Cottin’s apartment, becoming a surrogate father to her little girl and getting construction work in the area. When a chance encounter draws him back into the mystery of his daughter’s case, it prompts a choice (lifted from The Secret In Their Eyes) that compromises his morals in his quest to restore his daughter to himself.

Oscar-winner Thomas McCarthy, returning to drama for the first time since his Best Picture-winning Spotlight (with a Disney film in between) is touching back on themes he explored in his pandering and simplistic The Visitor, the What America Needs to Learn genre in which Damon, who is basically in drag as Trump’s America and never quite pulls it off, brings his good ole boy bluster to a foreign land and has to learn the hard way that he is the exception and not the standard when he’s not at home. He works far better as a character than as a lesson, displaying all the restrained wit and amiability needed for a movie star to carry a film, his interactions with Breslin and Cottin electrifying when the film is moving forward in what is, most of the time, an intriguing plot. When McCarthy stops to smell the roses, however, focusing simply on his lead’s transformed domestic life in the second act, he doesn’t find enough character-observation heat to push things forward and it sags quite a bit.

Cottin, a remarkably charismatic actor who gives the film’s standout performance, is a magnificent contrast to our protagonist, edgy but never bitter, sensitive and generous without ever being naïve, bringing plenty of her own assumptions about Americans that are clarified by her experience with Damon, but whether there’s much of a difference between how they each let cultural assumptions fall away in getting to know each other isn’t particularly clear. When their relationship takes a major turn towards the conclusion and they veer into Hollywood predictability, her character’s energy then dissipates, and the script gives into very predictable cliches.

The story’s jumping off point is clearly inspired by the Amanda Knox scandal of 2007, but that’s not really what it’s about, even the doubts it casts on her innocence is not aimed at the true story, McCarthy is only interested in telling us about his country’s being so prosperous and powerful while its citizens don’t seem to be aware of how little they share in that success; just what he wants to say gets muddled at the end when further plot twists reveal a kind of moral ambiguity that Damon’s character can’t accept, at which point we’re not sure if his eyes have been opened by what knows about the people close to home or what he’s seen abroad (or both). When he isn’t so intent on delivering a sermon and focuses on storytelling, McCarthy gets much more right than he gets wrong, but even if it’s not as hopelessly preachy as The Visitor, this is far too long a movie to justify its lecturing nature.

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