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Review: Stillwater (2021)

Stillwater (2021)

Directed by: Tom McCarthy

Premise: A midwestern father (Matt Damon) travels to France to visit his daughter (Abigail Breslin) who is serving a prison sentence for murder. He investigates a new lead that might point to the real killer.

What Works: Stillwater begins as one kind of story but halfway through it becomes something else and in the end the film is a whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts. The picture begins as a familiar investigative piece with a blue-collar American father investigating the murder case his daughter has been mixed up in. In the course of his investigation, the father befriends a single mother and her daughter (Camille Cottin and Lilou Siauvaud) and after the investigation hits an impasse he remains in France and cohabitates with them. Through the middle portion, Stillwater becomes a domestic story of a man getting a second chance at fatherhood. Rather than distracting from the murder investigation, the domestic subplot enhances it. Movies about fathers rescuing their daughters typically emphasize the extent to which parents will go to save their child. That generally manifests itself physically in movies such as Taken, with the father killing his way to his daughter. But in Stillwater the father’s new French family gives him something to lose and that validates his sacrifice. Stillwater works as well as it does in part because of Matt Damon. This is one of Damon’s best performances. Although he’s a recognizable movie star, Damon disappears into the role and he plays this flawed character with empathy and dignity. Also notable is Abigail Breslin as his daughter. Breslin doesn’t get much screentime but she makes the most of it; the history of their strained relationship is evident in their shared scenes. Breslin has a few big dramatic moments but it’s the quiet beats in which she contemplates her life that make the most impact. Stillwater also has a distinct feel for its setting. The movie is partly about the way our environment shapes us and the way we in turn change new environments to suit what we’re accustomed to and the way this keeps certain behavioral cycles in place.

What Doesn’t: The premise of Stillwater highly resembles the notorious murder case involving Amanda Knox. But Stillwater is not that story and it should not be confused as such. However, disparaging Stillwater for selectively borrowing from life, as Amanda Knox has done, is not a relevant critique. The film is certainly inspired by real events but the moviemakers have made no claim to dramatizing Knox’s life story and the two should not be conflated.

Bottom Line: Stillwater pulls a bait-and-switch in a way that’s rewarding. The movie initially presents itself as a murder mystery but it expands to become something much more complex and interesting than that.

Episode: #863 (August 8, 2021)