By Lynn Venhaus
A blatant rip-off of the sensational Amanda Knox student exchange murder case, the morally ambiguous “Stillwater” wants us to care about people not worth the investment.
That’s the biggest problem that this film can’t recover from – and a lack of redemption will leave an audience dissatisfied. Because of a misleading trailer, this 2-hour and 20-minute film is not what one expects and when it falls apart in the third act, a huge letdown.
A father, unemployed oil rig worker Bill Baker (Matt Damon), travels from Oklahoma to France to help his estranged daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), a student who is in prison for a murder she claims she didn’t commit. This is intense, but not action-driven like “Taken,” and while the romance is reminiscent of Robert Duvall’s Oscar winner, “Tender Mercies,” it begins to overshadow the central storyline.
“Life is brutal” is the disingenuous daughter’s deep thought about going through tough times. Well, duh. Doesn’t take Jean-Paul Sartre to figure that out.
At odds are the two main storylines – writer-director Tom McCarthy can’t decide on the focus, so it winds up feeling unfinished and lacks cohesiveness. Pick a lane – is this a vigilante hunt for the real killer thriller or is it a late-in-life romance and daddy do-over for a good old boy?
Three other screenwriters – Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, who wrote the gripping French prison drama “A Prophet,” and Noe Debre – are credited, so no wonder it’s uneven.
Is the resemblance to the Knox case intentional? To refresh, the murder of her roommate took place in Italy in 2007 and the Italian Supreme Court overturned her conviction in 2015.
The French setting adds other layers besides the language barrier, which are interesting points to include. McCarthy, responsible for two exceptional fish-out-of-water films, “The Visitor” in 2008 and “The Station Agent” in 2003, knows how to craft an endearing character study featuring disparate individuals that fate has brought together.
This doesn’t measure up, which is so disappointing because McCarthy won an Oscar for writing “Spotlight,” which deservedly won Best Picture in 2016, one of the most important films of the decade.
Absent the sheen of a noble cause, “Stillwater” is a frustrating effort without a point.
Abigail Breslin, Oscar nominee for “Little Miss Sunshine,” is not convincing as the smart American lesbian who wanted to get far away from her troubled life in Stillwater, Okla., and wound up in a student exchange program in Marseille, a port city is southern France. She fell in love with Lina, a French-Arab student, and they moved in together.
However, Lina cheated on Allison with other people, and one night, she is found stabbed to death. Neither the press nor the courts had any sympathy for Allison, now serving her fourth year of a nine-year sentence.
Her estranged father, Bill, Damon in a redneck aw-shucks mode, arrives from France to help. At first, he is bankrolled by Allison’s maternal grandmother Sharon (Tony Award winner Deanna Dunagan of “The Visit”), whose health won’t allow her to travel, but later, he gets construction work.
Sharon raised Allison after Bill’s wife, her daughter, committed suicide. This is glossed over, and the screenplay suffers from a lack of key information.
Apparently, Bill’s been messing up his whole life. He has served time too, for an undisclosed felony. No longer drinking, he is trying to be the dad he wasn’t while Allison was growing up. He takes it upon himself to investigate the case, arranging to meet locals who may know something.
His daughter has asked her lawyers to re-open the case because someone overheard a guy at a party claiming he did it, and in her letter to attorney Leparq, indicates she doesn’t trust her father. She has a deep resentment – but again, it’s not explored.
Because the main characters are extremely dysfunctional, it would have been nice to have some context.
Which leads us into the story’s secondary plot (or is it?) – Bill bonds with a single mother, Virginie (Camille Cottin), and her 9-year-old daughter, Maya (a wondrous Lilou Siauvand).
The kind, helpful woman, a French stage actress and activist, becomes his interpreter, then savior as a roommate and eventually, lover. Cottin is appealing and Siauvand, as her sweet daughter, is the scene-stealer.
Not unlike Amy Adams in the woefully misguided “Hillbilly Elegy,” Damon tries his mightiest to breathe humanity into a deeply flawed ordinary Joe trying to make up for past mistakes.
Despite Damon’s efforts immersing himself into the role with vigor, Breslin’s limited emotional depth and a wobbly defense propel this film off the rails. The slow pace doesn’t help it either.
Missed opportunities and miscasting make “Stillwater” a disheartening watch. It’s comparable to an extended “Law & Order” episode or a true-crime Lifetime movie, and I expected much more.
“Stillwater” is a 2021 drama directed by Tom McCarthy and starring Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, Camille Cottin and Lilou Siauvand. Rated R for language, the film’s run time is 2 hours, 20 minutes. It opened in theatres on July 30. Lynn’s Grade: C-.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat daily newspaper. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association.