Cert – 15, Run-time – 2 hours 19 minutes, Director – Tom McCarthy
An American father (Matt Damon) searches France for the man his daughter (Abigail Breslin) claims committed the murder that she has been falsely imprisoned for.
Much like Matt Damon’s central character, Tom McCarthy’s latest, Stillwater, wastes no time in rushing straight into its narrative. You’re thrown straight into the middle of it, almost feeling that perhaps a detail or two has been missed, as Damon’s Bill meets with his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), who is serving a nine year sentence for the murder of a collegemate who she was in a relationship with at the time. It’s a long journey from Oklahoma to the Marseille, however he makes it regularly to check in on how she’s doing, especially as she claims to have been falsely imprisoned. On discovering further details about the murder and the events that led up to it Bill steps away from lawyers, judges and his own daughter’s wishes and begins to investigate himself. Trying to find the man who Allison claims did commit the crime.
All thoughts that something may have been missed out are quickly dispensed of and you find yourself almost unknowingly being tightly gripped by the film as it travels across its narrative. A tone alike to a neo-western thriller is established as Damon finds himself diving further into unknown and uncertain territories looking for dark answers in dark places. And yet, this isn’t an entirely dark film. Yes, there are moments of tension and slight chase-adjacent action, and certainly there are some dark character moments throughout, but co-writer (with Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré) and director McCarthy ensures some lighter moments are dashed throughout the frantic investigation.
Bill soon finds himself residing with theatre actress Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her young daughter Maya (Lilou Siavoud). For the most part the relationship is a close and friendly one. There’s an almost family dynamic to the relationship, at least between Bill and Maya – she teaches him French, while he speaks English which she pretends to understand – a bond that he’s perhaps missed over the years with his real daughter having been in prison in another country for so long. However, as slight romantic tones are brought in part way through the second half of the film things begin to slightly crumble. Initially the shifts in tone feel well done, especially as this isn’t a huge tension-filled thriller, however as more elements are brought in towards the close of the film the run-time is pushed on and it begins to feel overlong. At 139 minutes there’s a lot going on in the final stages and some of it does feel as if it could be dialled down to avoid the slight dip that begins to appear. It leads to an ending that feels unsure of itself. In terms of where it should end, when and how.
And yet, before all of this, there’s a large proportion of the plot that is perhaps unaware of just how good it is. There are occasionally tones of hopeful-outsider-Oscar-contender within Stillwater, and yet they never scream or shout and beg for awards style attention. And perhaps that’s because of the western-thriller tone and the way that it brings you in and engages you within the personal search that Damon’s often dead-pan central character embarks on, in the hope of freeing his daughter from prison four years early, justice for the allegedly wrongly convicted five which she’s already served. A narrative that holds your interest and intrigue, while managing to throw in some dashes of evenly balanced tension and darkness within the drama, and lighter elements of bonding between Bill, Virginie and Maya.
The main issues come in the fact that it becomes aware of everything it hasn’t done that it’s wanted to do and either rushes or it briefly mentions points in the latter stages of the piece, making it feel somewhat rushed and overstuffed itself. Once again, by the time it gets to the ending, the film feels overlong and unsure as to where to go or what to do when to wrapping up its story. It’s a gradually declining nature to what had become an engaging, and at times thrilling, drama. It’s a shame that, like Matt Damon’s character in his research throughout the streets of Marseille, what begins to work so well was perhaps that way because it held off certain details until a rushed panic towards the end.
After being thrown into it, Stillwater takes time to grip you with its engaging tone and style. However, it then rushes its other ideas and plot points at the uncertain end of an overlong film.