A damn effective drama about the struggles accompanying second chances and unshakable reputations.
Tom McCarthy’s latest, Stillwater is a character study about second chances and trying to escape unshakable reputations. The film, named after the town where Oklahoma State University is located, and its football team, is beloved by the locals. It’s one of the first things that Bill (Matt Damon) tells his daughter, Allison (Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin, unfortunately, miscast here), how good their Cowboys will be this year on a visit to her place near the French Riviera. You may think he would find something else to talk about, but it’s just his way. She is grateful for any company since she is serving a life sentence in a French prison for killing her girlfriend.
The Amanda Knox case heavily influenced Stillwater (so much so, she went to Twitter to speak of her displeasure with the film). It’s remarkably grounded and self-contained. Which, considering McCarthy’s track record of films like Spotlight, The Visitor, and The Station Agent, is hardly a surprise.
But for a film working from a script of four writers that included McCarthy and writing partner Marcus Hinchey (Come Sunday), Thomas Bidegain (A Prophet), and Noé Debré (Racer and the Jailbird), things could have gotten out of hand quickly. Considering Bidegain’s origin and history with French crime and prison films. He knows the culture and the attitudes involved. This brings a level of authenticity that McCarthy may not have been able to bring to the film. In particular, with a fish out of water story that has Damon’s Bill in the city streets of Marseille.
For most of the film, Damon’s Bill struggles to find anyone to help his daughter. Many have an opinion not of Allison, where, like Knox, most think she is guilty, but about him. He must be a bumbling, big-mouthed, MAGA/Trump-supporting American that the world has come to despise. Well, the joke’s on them. He couldn’t even vote because of his criminal record. That’s what he tells a French woman, Virginie (Allied’s Camille Cottin), and her daughter Maya (Lilous Siauvaud), without shame. They give him a chance to reinvent his life. All while coming to accept his grown daughter’s fate.
The final product is a damn effective roughneck Riveria drama with an all-encompassing performance from Damon. Reportedly McCarthy and Damon spent months talking and studying oil-rig workers in Oklahoma. It is a chameleon-like performance from Damon that comes full circle with Stillwater’s thematically layered script. Its mystery doesn’t drive the filmy. But, it’s a character study that focuses on the struggles accompanying second chances and unshakable reputations. It’s one of, if not Damon’s finest, performance.