Stillwater Movie 2021 Review
“Stillwater” is the kind of movie we haven’t seen in a while. It’s a serious, big-scale American film from a leading director, featuring a career-topping performance by a big star. If you’ve been feeling that the movies you’ve been seeing have lacked something, well, they’ve lacked what “Stillwater” has — importance. It feels like a major movie, because it is.
From the beginning, we know we’re in good directorial hands with Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight“). The opening shots show Matt Damon picking through the rubble of a neighborhood destroyed by a tornado. He’s a laborer on a work crew, and he glances over at the people whose homes were destroyed. His expression is more or less blank, and yet those few seconds say a lot.
They say that this is a hardworking guy. They say he keeps a tight rein on his emotions. They say that he has a feeling for human suffering and that he recognizes it, possibly from personal experience. Moments later, we see him at home, and know that he lives by himself and that he doesn’t have much money.
Like the best movie actors, Matt Damon always seems like himself, but the self he seems like has lots of range. Here, playing Bill — a redneck from Stillwater, Okla. — Damon somehow suggests an entire belief system, a whole way of looking at the world. Little of that internal life is ever spoken, but it’s present in his pauses, in the way he looks at people, in the way his eyes convey thought. Damon is on his way to an extraordinary performance within minutes, and that’s before anything happens.
Then things start to happen. He gets on a plane and lands in Marseilles Provence airport. Is this guy a Francophile? Not exactly. In a situation not unlike the Amanda Knox case, Bill is the father of a young woman convicted of killing her roommate. When he arrives, Allison (Abigail Breslin) has been imprisoned for four years and needs her father to try to persuade the French government to reopen the case.
The screenplay, by McCarthy, Thomas Bidegain and Marcus Hinchey, does something unusual. For the first part of the movie, the story gets on track to be all about how Bill — despite not knowing French and standing out as a foreigner — takes it upon himself to prove his daughter’s innocence. But then it seems to shift gears altogether, to become the story of Bill’s relationship with a struggling French actress (Camille Cottin from Netflix’s “Call My Agent”) and her daughter.
It comes as no surprise at all that the screenwriters eventually make the two threads of story converge. But what is impressive is the time McCarthy takes to do it and his confidence — well-placed, as it turns out — that the audience is so captivated by Bill and his life that it’s happy to follow him wherever he goes, and wherever the story takes him. It’s as if the French location were having an influence on the film itself, with its European emphasis on human interaction and on the rhythms of actual life.
Given the chance to really act, the actors respond. Damon is always good, but his performance here is so full, so restrained and so specific that it has to go down as the best thing he’s ever done. Camille Cottin — a rising star in French cinema — seems unable to have an untruthful moment, and Lilou Siavaud, who plays her daughter, is lovely throughout, but especially acting opposite Damon. And who would have thought, in her “Little Miss Sunshine” days, that Abigail Breslin would remain such a raw, unspoiled talent?
The result is an ideal fusion of a Hollywood-style overall narrative with the detailed, lived-in emotional truth of a first-rate European effort. Audiences will come away feeling like they’ve really been somewhere, that they were moved by the people they met and expanded by the experience. You can’t ask more from a movie.