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Stillwater 2021 movie review
Image: Focus Features

Film

Stillwater: Where was all the Action?

Stillwater Review

When I exited the movie theater after watching Stillwater, the elderly couple in front of me immediately began discussing it. “Where was all the action?” “I thought this was going to be like the Bourne movies.” They thought they were getting a Jason Bourne action-adventure, but with a thick American accent and a little more weight and hair on Matt Damon. This movie was definitely not that. It also didn’t quite rise to the potential to be a meta-commentary on that type of film and the role individual Americans play abroad.

Bill (Matt Damon) flies to Marseilles to see his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) who has been in prison for five years. It’s an interesting choice to meet Bill and Allison several years into the latter’s prison sentence. By doing so, Oscar-winning director Tom McCarthy, French César-winning screenwriter Thomas Bidegain and writing partner Noé Debré create space to see Bill and Allison’s seemingly odd, but typical for millions of incarcerated people and their families, routine. Even after five years, Bill has made no attempt to learn French, other than the basic pleasantries, or try and understand anything about a culture that was so alluring to his daughter that she moved thousands of miles for it.

Image: Tom McCarthy, right, directs Matt Damon and Abigail Breslin on the set of Stillwater. Focus Features

Allison is in prison for murdering her girlfriend, for which she claims she is innocent. When new evidence is discovered, she writes to her lawyer and asks Bill to deliver the message. In another movie, this could have been the inciting incident that leads Bill on a rampage through a French city to prove his daughter’s innocence. Instead, it leads Bill to Virginie (Camille Cottin), a French theater actress who lives in Marseille, and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvard) when he needs some translation help. Bill pokes around and, ignoring Virginie’s advice, asks questions in the notorious Kallisté neighborhood. When he gets hospitalized because he didn’t listen to advice about a dangerous neighborhood, he moves in with Virginie and Maya.

For much of the latter half, Bill slowly becomes immersed in Marseille culture and community through his relationship with Virginie and Maya. Matt Damon can be an emotive actor, but here he feels weighed down. Maybe it was the facial hair or the accent? Whatever it was, Damon’s performance feels flat. The writers remind everyone that not all gun-toting Oklahomans are irrational Trump fans. People can be nuanced, and religious Bill certainly is. Even so, he still proves that Americans often engage in colonial and imperialistic behavior abroad, with potentially dire consequences.

Stillwater
Image: Focus Features

Even though Bill is the protagonist, it’s the women’s performances that shine. Breslin is thoughtful in a role inspired by the true story of Amanda Knox. (Knox is not keen on the film’s parallels to her own life.) Siauvard is devastatingly charming and plays a key scene near the end exceptionally well. Cottin, of Call my Agent! fame, shines in every scene whether she’s arguing with a bigoted shop owner or helping Bill navigate the intricacies of French society.

To some, the movie is a decent exploration of American interference abroad and how terrible the results of that can be. By making Bill a sympathetic heroic protagonist, it seems more inclined to that of a character study. The theme simmers below the surface, but never properly sticks the landing.

Written By

Leah is a TV aficionado and a recovering 9-5 office worker. She lives in New York and has traveled to over 25 countries in search of the perfect latte. She loves to be in debt so has degrees from universities in international politics, film, and wildlife conservation. Follow her on Twitter @LDWersebe.

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