Friday, November 5, 2021

Movie Review: STILLWATER (2021)

Written by: Josh "The Merc" Raynor

When I first heard about this movie, I instantly thought back to the news story about Amanda Knox, the girl who was wrongfully convicted of killing her roommate in Italy back in 2007. Come to find out, Stillwater was directly inspired by those events, but instead of telling that story, it flips it, taking that tragedy and shaping into one that focuses on a father’s pursuit to prove his daughter’s innocence. This was a brilliant way to take inspiration from true life events without actually making a biopic about a specific story. It allowed more freedom in the story, giving the filmmakers a chance to mold this into something they specifically wanted to tell, while using a familiar event as a backdrop that could hook viewers from the start. 

Matt Damon pulls out an incredible performance as Bill Baker, an American oil rig worker who travels to France to visit his daughter, played by the very talented Abigail Breslin, who has been locked up for five years for a murder she insists she didn’t commit. While there, he learns some information that leads him down a path to exonerate his daughter. With the help of a local woman and her daughter, his life takes turns he never would have expected. 

This fantastic thriller keeps you engrossed for the majority of the film, simply due to Damon’s dynamite performance as a father unwilling to give up hope. As a father myself, I connected to that aspect of his character, the drive to do whatever it takes to keep your child safe. It’s something I think about every single day of my life, and as I watched this, I knew I would do the exact same thing. I would travel across the world, to a country whose language I didn’t know, and find a way to be there for her. And Damon pulled this off in such a sincere way. It was one of the best acting performances I’ve seen from him in a very long time. 

I was impressed with just how well Damon was able to portray this southern roughneck character. It’s very different from most of the characters we typically see from him, and it was a breath of fresh air to see it done without a bunch of political undertones. There was only one Trump reference that I caught, but it played perfectly here without leaning his character one way or another. Instead, they play him as a father who wasn’t around much but is trying to make up for that and be there for his daughter now, at a time when she really needs him. 

A lot of Damon’s scenes are complimented by the spectacular performances of Camille Cottin and Lilou Siauvaud, who play Virginie and Maya, respectively. Virginie is the one person who’s able to ground Bill as he struggles to help his daughter, Allison. And the bond we see between this rough-around-the-edges, simple man from Oklahoma and Virginie’s young daughter, Maya, is absolutely heartwarming. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Abigail Breslin, who plays Allison Baker, the character inspired by Amanda Knox. This is, by far, one of the most mature roles I’ve ever seen from her. The level of emotion she’s able to bring to her few scenes shows just how good of an actress she really is and I look forward to seeing her career grow. 

Tom McCarthy led the charge on this film as the director and co-writer, but this wasn’t his first foray into the world of true life events. Back in 2015, McCarthy wrote and directed the Academy Award winning film Spotlight, which told the story of The Boston Globe’s investigation into child sex abuse in the Boston area by several Roman Catholic priests. So, McCarthy already had experience dealing with the minutia of putting together a story inspired by true events, and seemed to have taken that knowledge and brought it to this film. 

One of the things I loved about this film is that it wasn’t afraid to use foreign languages. The first dialogue you hear is in Spanish with accompanying subtitles, and throughout the film there is a great deal of subtitled French. This allowed me to feel fully immersed in this world that was being crafted, instead of just taking the route of making everyone speak English for the ease of the audience. Tom McCarthy trusted that the audience would be able to follow along in order to give them a richer viewing experience. And it wasn’t just done to do it, as it is central to the “fish out of water” character arc of Damon’s Bill Baker. 

The film isn’t without its flaws though. With a 2 hour and 19 minute runtime, there’s bound to be some bloated scenes, and there’s definitely some of that here. Most of the second act seemed to drag unnecessarily long, while the third act felt very rushed. This unevenness really took what was building up to be a great thriller and threw a wrench in the pacing.  

Also, there’s a scene in the middle of the film that didn’t seem to fit, and even felt a bit awkward. We see Bill and Allison at the water, and Allison goes for a swim. But it looks like she’s topless. I couldn’t see any ties on her back and she had no shoulder straps. It seemed strange to me because her father is just watching her as she dives into the water, topless. It felt like an unnecessary detail and was a bit off-putting. I understand the purpose of the scene itself, as it gave the audience the ability to see her experiencing freedom, which makes the scenes to come more impactful. But it would have worked just as well had she been wearing a shirt, or at least a bra.

Overall, Stillwater is a solid film filled with wonderful performances, beautiful music and cinematography, and a good story, but the pacing issues in middle prevent it from being great. It’s definitely worth a watch, so check it out if you get the chance.


The Merc’s Score: 7/10



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