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‘Stillwater’ Review: A narrative that twists itself into knots

Tom McCarthy’s latest is more conceptually interesting than emotionally satisfying.

Matt Damon in 'Stillwater'.
(Image: © Focus Features)

Our Verdict

'Stillwater' avoids being a misfire by at least being interesting to parse, but don’t expect its ultimate purpose to resonate emotionally.

For

  • ✖️ It's a twisty story with a lot on its mind, making it interesting to intellectually pick apart.
  • ✖️ The supporting cast is putting in the work here.

Against

  • ✖️ The act breaks may be intentionally jarring, but they don't serve to keep one emotionally engaged.
  • ✖️ Matt Damon is so restrained that his character can sometimes be impenetrable.

Whatever else can be said about Stillwater, it is not a film lacking in ambition or vision. Oscar-winning writer-director Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) and co-writers Marcus Hinchey and Thomas Bidegin have attempted to piece together a compelling piece of personal drama, at first smuggled in under the guise of an investigative procedural, but slowly collapsing inward to explore the intricacies of their protagonist’s motivations, compulsions, and needs. That’s a tall order, and the film succeeds well enough that you can clearly see what is being aimed for, at least in the broad strokes. However, Stillwater is also a film that intellectually engages more than it does emotionally, expecting too much from its audience in terms of patience and empathy.

The film’s trailer only truly showcases the film’s first act, in which Oklahoman Bill (Matt Damon) travels to Marseilles, France to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), who has been imprisoned for the last five years for the murder of her college girlfriend. On this visit, Allison asks Bill to deliver a letter to her attorney, which states that a professor heard one of his students talking about a guy at a party who boasted about getting away with a similar-sounding murder. When Allison’s attorney (Anne Le Ny) refuses to follow up on this hearsay, Bill launches a makeshift investigation of his own, developing a bond with his hotel neighbor Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her nine-year-old daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) as he receives Virginie’s assistance as a makeshift interpreter. In doing so, he hopes to not only get his daughter free, but to reignite a relationship that became strained and estranged long before Allison left for Europe.

The biggest issue right out the gate is that Bill is a hard character to read emotionally, which makes him a difficult protagonist to either root for or empathize with. This isn't so much a problem with Damon’s performance, which eventually does get enough of a leash to showcase more than solemnity, anger, and determination, but with how the character is written into the story. Though Breslin, Cottin, and Siauvaud are all delivering excellent performances, they have to do some heavy emotional lifting to make up for how little Damon’s character is allowed to display an internal life, at least throughout the first act. When the story is more procedural and the impetus for the storytelling is to explore the mystery rather than the protagonist, that’s not necessarily a problem, but so much storytelling economy is spent explaining how Bill has a history of being a fuck-up father that later turns in the story are short-changed by our inability to see that origin, either through literal events on screen or implication in Bill’s reactions.

This is why the first act break really throws the narrative pacing for a loop, as the investigation comes to a grinding halt and focus shifts to Bill’s attempts at domestic happiness. This is where Damon is allowed to shine, as Bill’s happiness slowly uncloisters and reveals dimension to a man who is not otherwise keen to show it. There’s a certain cleverness to the reversal, a satisfying acknowledgment that the catharsis of justice might not compare to the emotional stability of being at peace. Yet this act drags on for so long that the lack of plot momentum starts to become glaringly obvious, especially as the more compelling aspects of Allison’s claims of innocence are never allowed to drop entirely from the back of your mind.

This culminates in a third act that once again shifts tone and genre, this time to something that feels more exploitative than what preceded, a shift into melodrama that the film had otherwise restrained itself from. It’s a shockingly nihilistic turn for a film that was leaning so heavily into humanism for the bulk of its runtime, but there is value in that emotional bait and switch. Stillwater’s climax and coda allow for plenty of literary interpretation about the ability and inability of people to change their ways and the inherent toxicity of certain American values, but at a sometimes tedious two hours and nineteen minutes, Stillwater feels more invested in painstakingly setting up its tragic inevitabilities than exploring what its events mean to the characters living them.

What’s most frustrating is that the individual scenes that comprise this overstuffed clutch of twists and motifs are mostly rather entertaining. Bill slowly coming out of his shell; The threads of Allison’s case coming together and falling apart; Virginie’s magnetic pull to a determined American’s love for his daughter: these all make for some funny, touching, and heartbreaking moments. It’s when taken as a whole that the film feels less substantial, that its compelling set-up and relaxed build-up was in service to some comparatively cheap pessimism when it could have leaned just as hard into its investment in hope and the sense of purpose Bill desperately craves. Stillwater avoids being a misfire by at least being interesting to parse, but don’t expect its ultimate purpose to resonate emotionally; it’s determined to force you to bounce off.

Stillwater opens in theaters on July 30, 2021.