Director: Tom McCarthy
Screenwriter: Tom McCarthy, Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain
Starring: Matt Damon, Camille Cottin, Lilou Siauvaud, Abigail Breslin
2021 Focus Features release Stillwater tells the story of a young American girl who was falsely charged for a crime she did not commit whilst living and studying in Marseille, France. Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting) leads the cast in this crime drama as struggling father Bill Baker who takes it upon himself to prove his daughter’s innocence. Twists and turns drive this emotionally powered story, with director and co-screenwriter Tom McCarthy using the true-to-life narrative to explore the wider culture of a city ravaged by gang crime through the eyes of an American who is completely out of his depth. It’s a film that holds your attention from the opening moments to the closing scene.
Alison Baker (Abigail Breslin – Little Miss Sunshine) is serving a 9 year sentence for the murder of her girlfriend Lina, a crime she claims to be innocent of. When visited by her father in a Marseille prison, Alison hands her father a letter to give to her lawyer. Within the letter is information that leads to another man’s involvement in the murder, but the lawyer refuses to help, leading Bill to take on the challenge of following this lead himself.
Bill stumbles along the way as the language barrier and cultural differences prevent him from taking on this task single-handedly. Whilst staying in a cheap hotel, Bill meets local actress Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). With the help of Virginie, Bill manages to find the man involved in the murder, but due to his involvement in a dangerous gang, he slips out of Bill’s grasp, leaving him at a dead end. As time passes, Bill and Virginie develop a deeply caring relationship for one another, but his need to prove Alison’s innocence gets in his way of living a happy life with Virginie and Maya, and this determination causes him to make detrimental mistakes.
The development of Damon’s character is pivotal to the film. A recovering alcoholic, an ex-con and a widower, Bill has a lot of demons to face whilst taking on the seemingly impossible task of freeing his innocent daughter. Damon’s challenging performance is a credit to the actor and the support he receives from those behind the camera: it’s powerful, meaningful and unlike anything we have seen from him to date.
Equally as powerful are the underlying themes and ideologies of the film that showcase the divide in the class system in France, with racism known to be rife in Marseille in particular due to the number of refugees living in the city. Camille Cottin’s character, Virginie, is by day an actress who is trying to make a name for herself in the theatre, but when she is not performing she is a campaigner for social rights. Whilst following one of Bill’s leads, and acting as his translator, Virginie is introduced to a bar owner who was a witness on the night of the crime. His racist remarks towards the young men who were in his bar that night causes Virginie to speak out to Bill, refusing to help any further.
There are many intricate moments throughout the script that point towards these issues and aim to educate the audience, particularly within scenes when Bill is using his American superiority to get what he wants only to be knocked back when he realises it has no value in Marseille. This is all a testament to the writers who imbue each moment of the story with deeper meaning than the simple narrative at its heart.
Oscar-winning writer-director Tom McCarthy sits at the helm for Stillwater, showcasing his ability to direct dark and powerful dramas circling around the real lives of victims. His 2015 Best Picture winner Spotlight set a foundation for the type of stories he excels at telling, with its detailed look into the controversy of Boston paedophiles told from the perspective of journalists. McCarthy is less accurate with the true story behind Stillwater, changing information for cinematic value rather than staying true to the source material of the Amanda Knox case of 2007, but much of the suspense and the detail within each of the character arcs that McCarthy showcased in Spotlight are present here, as is the empowering message about revealing the truth.
Despite the slightly misleading marketing campaign that made Stillwater look more like Matt Damon starring in Taken 4, this Tom McCarthy offering comprises of emotional storytelling whilst remaining engaging through a smart balance of drama and humour, offering a closing scene that will leave you shocked to the core. Stillwater truly is beautiful filmmaking from Tom McCarthy and his team, with stand out performances from Matt Damon, Camille Cottin and Lilous Siauvaud likely to stick with you long after the closing credits roll.