‘Stillwater’ review: Matt Damon makes French connections as the American outsider in a frustrating drama

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  • Matt Damon
    Matt Damon
    American actor

“Stillwater” feels like a movie filmed in a slightly blurry state of mind, then reshaped in the editing stage into a whole new blur. You don’t know where it’s going, and that’s a plus. Yet director and co-writer Tom McCarthy’s drama is as uncertain as his good movies, “Spotlight” highest among them, are quietly confident in going about their business.

Matt Damon stars, and pulls off this year’s win for Best Josh Brolin Impersonation. The script, co-written by Thomas Bidegain, Marcus Hinchey and Noe Debre, builds its fish-out-of-water premise around an Oklahoma oil rigger turned construction worker, Bill Baker, whose daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) has landed in a Marseille, France, prison. She’s serving a murder sentence for the killing of her lover, though she contends the real killer was a young Arab man still at large.

The title carries three symbolic meanings, which is the legal limit even in better movies than this one. It’s Bill’s hometown; the word on the telltale necklace worn by Allison; and the secretive, still-waters-run-deep idea guiding this good ol’ boy in his quest to find the real killer.

A stranger in a strange land, Bill works short-term construction jobs in Marseille and takes a room in the apartment belonging to local stage actress Virginie (Camille Cottin of “Killing Eve” and “Call My Agent”) and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). Gradually Bill and Virginie become lovers; Bill and Maya have already grown to be good friends. After a lifetime of violence, addiction and loss, widower Bill receives these developments gratefully.

But wait! There’s a ridiculous plot development that needs tending! It’s in the trailer, which makes better dramatic sense of “Stillwater” than “Stillwater” does as it lurches into thriller territory. The early scenes play needless guessing games with the audience regarding Allison’s predicament and simple exposition. Later, one character’s suicide attempt comes out of nowhere, its implications and fallout erased almost instantly in a bid to keep the running time under two-and-a-half hours.

“Stillwater” borrows some ideas from the real-life Amanda Knox case, involving a young American jailed in Italy for murder but later exonerated. There’s an effective drama in those building blocks, and Damon, Breslin, Cottin and Siauvaud work hard and honestly at the material at hand. As Bill’s mother back home, Chicago-based “August: Osage County” Tony Award-winner Deanna Dunagan fills in the margins of a sparsely drawn character.

The movie’s determined to make Bill neither a conservative who turns liberal, nor a red state caricature. Damon’s restraint — his wariness in dealing with people he knows and people he doesn’t — convinces, up to a point. That point is when Bill is asked point-blank by some French citizens if he voted for Donald Trump. His answer manages to sidestep ruffling political feathers on either side of the theater aisle, while smelling vaguely of merde.



2 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: R (for language)

Running time: 2:20

Where to watch: Out Friday in theaters


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