Perhaps surprisingly, Stillwater is not a straight-to-streaming film about a killer shark terrorising a sleepy fishing village or a faux rockumentary about Billy Crudup's band in Almost Famous. Instead Tom McCarthy's first foray into adult filmmaking since his Oscar-winning Spotlight offers two films at the price of one. It starts out as a gritty dad-on-a mission film, then morphs into a romantic drama it goes back to. Even if it doesn't fully integrate its genres, Stillwater is still the kind of low-budget adult film that Hollywood does not seem to produce any more. The film was originally scheduled to release for Awards season 2020 but instead it's bowing at Cannes It's an enjoyable, though long thriller-drama (thrama? ).
The father-possessed aspect of the film features Matt Damon's Bill Baker, an oil driller from Stillwater, Oklahoma (the title is not the only one with a meaning) He crosses the water in order to see his wife Allison (Abigail Breslin) in the Marseille prison. The accused is charged with the murder of her girlfriend Lina, Allison has run out of legal options, and is forced to write Bill an email that could be a chance to revisit the case. If Bill confronts tough-minded French judges who are a bit tough, he decides to take the matter in his own hands by contacting DNA and detectives as well as talking to witnesses and hunting the suspects. If it sounded like Liam Neeson but it's played out with a more human level — there are dead ends, realistic fight scenes — and the plot elements are played by the conflicted (but not the most thrilling) relation that exists between Bill and Allison which is played out through snatched prison visits.
The whole thing is supported with Matt Damon.
Bill is assisted in his quest by theatre actress Virginie (Call My Agent! breakthrough Camille Cottin) and, about halfway through, Stillwater shifts gear. In this moment, McCarthy becomes much more attracted to Bill discovering a new perspective in the company of Virginie and her daughter of eight years, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). There are intriguing dynamical elements to be found here as the gun-loving God-fearing (a shotgun and the Glock) American tries to reach a common ground with an open-minded French thesp ("What do I want doing in the theatre that is fucking?" Bill says at some moment), Damon, Cottin (excellent) and the young Siauvaud making a warm, welcoming connection that makes the beneficial relationship appear compelling.
Thomas Bidegain, co-screenwriter of the film, is a frequent collaborator with Jacques Audiard and Stillwater tries but isn't always successful in channeling the French filmmaker's mix of character research and genre licks. the emphasis on family drama stifles the vigor of the story as well as some of the tropes of a thriller appear to be a ploy in an intimate, well-observed scene. However, McCarthy's cinematic style is adroit, the Marseille setting is refreshing and the ending takes you to a completely different location. The whole film is supported by Damon whom you can trust as a quiet man confronting regrets about his relationships and trying to make new ones, gaining tenderness and a new style of life. Between the process and the confrontations Damon makes Stillwater enjoyable.