In Stillwater, we follow Bill (Matt Damon) as he travels to Marseille, France to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin). However, it’s far from your normal visit as she has been serving a prison sentence for the past 4 years, having been accused of killing her roommate and unfaithful lover. Bill and Allison are estranged, but he has agreed to visit her and try to help her with her situation.
As intriguing as this synopsis may be, there is a disappointing lack of character development between Bill and Allison, especially given the fact their relationship is meant to be estranged and complex. Aside from a few quick scenes where he visits her in prison, and some that follow later on, we really don’t get to know that much about their history and the characters feel quite two-dimensional. Because there’s really no depth to these characters, it makes you wonder why on earth Bill has decided to invest so much time, money, and resources into helping his daughter out. Why would a man fly around the world if he was so… indifferent?
Instead, the film focuses primarily on Bill’s relationship with local woman Virginie (Camille Cottin), who he initially convinces to help him translate a letter given to him by Allison. As the film progresses, he grows close to both Virginie and her young daughter, eventually moving in with them. This is precisely Stillwater‘s biggest issue, instead of focusing on the pressing matter of Allison’s prison sentence, it seems to go off on a tangent about Bill’s budding and inevitable romance with Virginie, and his father-like relationship with her daughter. We see more of these characters than we do Allison, who is supposed to be at the heart of this story.
This segue wouldn’t have been too bad if it had felt believable but once again, it’s unconvincing and there’s no chemistry between Virginie and Bill. Having said that, the way he bonds with her daughter feels more plausible, and there were some heartwarming scenes that elevated the film to a certain extent and raised some questions about whether or not this was Bill “trying to be a father again”, having had a difficult relationship with Allison. This is never really confirmed, but it does come across that way, and there were certain scenes I enjoyed because of this particular theme.
Matt Damon has an impressive number of films under his belt, but this is certainly not his strongest role, and this is likely due to the lack of backstory for his character. Bill is quite boring and there’s nothing to him, which isn’t ideal when you’re meant to be following a protagonist during a turbulent time in his life. He coasts through the film, never truly being developed, and never expressing any real emotions. It’s a strange performance, and won’t be remembered as one of Damon’s best.
With a runtime of 2 hours and 19 minutes, you would have expected more scenes focused on Allison and the case at hand, as we spend a lot of it trying to fill in the blanks and figuring out just what happened here. Because Allison’s personality isn’t really developed, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for her, making it a rather confusing experience. When she is on screen, her presence is nowhere near as strong or poignant as it could have been given the fact her father is apparently willing to risk it all to prove her innocence.
The pacing of the film is largely slow but unfortunately is on the verge of tedium as there are plenty of scenes that really didn’t need to be there, and could have been replaced with ones that actually gave some information to the audience. It’s even more disappointing that Amanda Knox wasn’t consulted on this film, given the fact it was loosely based on her own experiences and her infamous case that has been adapted many times before. Those looking for a thought-provoking crime drama won’t find any of that here, as there’s nothing to challenge the audience at all.
While the film is well shot, and the talent is there, it really doesn’t hit the right notes, and once the credits roll it’s easy to feel nothing, which is not what you want from a film whose trailer implied it was going to be heart-wrenching and case heavy. This is a letdown when you consider the work director Tom McCarthy has done on films such as Spotlight, The Visitor, and even Pixar’s Up, stories which are full of heart and complicated topics. Stillwater had so much potential but didn’t quite live up to it, lacking the emotional punch many have come to associate with McCarthy’s work over the years.
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