‘Stillwater’ runs deep and tepid | Movie Review

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Director Tom McCarthy, best known for his Oscar-winning film “Spotlight,” is also known for directing films that are forthright and intentional.

McCarthy’s latest film, “Stillwater,” starring Matt Damon and Abigail Breslin, is unlike “Spotlight” and his other films in that the audience doesn’t always know which direction it’s heading. This can be good at times, but such uncertainty can feel strange and dismissive to the audience.

Damon plays Bill Baker, an Oklahoma oil field and construction worker who’s had his share of a bleak and sometimes, as he puts it, “brutal” life. A painful part of that life is his estranged relationship with his daughter Allison (Breslin), who decided years ago to study abroad and escape not only her father but also the memories and social limitations of Oklahoma.

With details and ideas taken from the murder trial of American Amanda Knox in Italy, this story takes us to France along with a surprisingly well-travelled Bill. He has visited Allison several times over a five-year period while she is being held in prison for murdering her lover and  roommate. 

After learning details about the true killer, Bill finds work and a bit of stability in Marseille as he proceeds to not only find the answers needed to free Allison, but also to prove his daughter can depend on him. Along the way, he finds help with the language and much more from his new friend, French stage actress Virginie (Camile Cottin of “Killing Eve”) and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). Over time, Bill becomes someone Virginie and Maya can depend on; a man he was unable to be for his own family years ago.

The movie preaches in a subtle (or maybe not) way, about prejudice, the messed-up justice system, and even dances around political statements with Damon’s stoic Bill being non-committal; a man of few words when it comes to most interactions. Clearly given direction to be the quintessential tough roughneck with a heart of gold underneath his cap and tattoos, Damon shows us how hard he’s worked on this character. 

Indeed, his walk, his mannerisms, and the visible stuffing of his emotions all work well for this character, adding to the uneasiness of the film. Bill is certainly not in an environment he’s accustomed to, yet he carries on with determination for his daughter. Damon certainly shines in a role that doesn’t always make sense, showing us why he’s considered one of the best. He does well with what he has been given to work with.

Always an actress who could do so much with a look or tilt of her head, Breslin is brilliant as Allison and proves yet again that she can transition from child actress to adult actress with ease.

Scene stealing bright spots in the film are Cottin as the charming, lovely and solid Virginie, and Siauvaud, who is just cute enough, yet not over the top as Maya. French actor Moussa Maaskri as a retired police investigator is expert at his role.

With lots of good story elements, the sweeping, yet sometimes understated Mediterranean scenery, in addition to great moments from a hard-working cast, “Stillwater” is very watchable and has solid intentions. However, the movie throws curve balls often and languishes at key points in the story. A failed suicide attempt is barely addressed and seems an afterthought.  How Bill and Masskri’s character begin a relationship is barely inferred. The domestic situation between Bill and Virginie is explored for longer than needed, and a possibly exciting confrontation between local police and Bill comes off as weighty and even a bit clumsy.  

I was left wondering if some important scenes were cut in order to fit the movie into a neat time frame.

It’s clear McCarthy wanted to show us how certain Americans are viewed by folks around the world (and possibly McCarthy himself). He also seems to want to toy with an audience who thinks Matt Damon is going to storm into a foreign country and kick butt. Instead, we are given a story that will disappoint some high expectations.

See this picture, but probably in your living room. You’ll most likely feel better about the cost of a rental instead of a movie ticket.

“Stillwater” opens in theaters July 30 and has an MPAA rating of R for language and violence. Running time is 140 minutes.

My grade: B+

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