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There is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with a movie being 140 minutes long. If a director needs that much real estate to best tell the story that they want to tell, that’s their choice to make in the creative process. That being said, a runtime like that has an extra onus to be earned – with filmmakers understanding that the audience’s investment should be reciprocated with focused storytelling that makes the most of every on-screen moment. This, unfortunately, is a covenant not honored by Tom McCarthy’s Stillwater.
The film, loosely based on the much-publicized trial of Amanda Knox, certainly has a compelling core – following a father as he tries to earn redemption in the eyes of his daughter by finding evidence to overturn her murder conviction. As the narrative unfolds, however, it proves unable to keep its eye on the ball. Instead of fully committing to its plot, Stillwater instead tries to shoehorn in a full character study, and in addition to it not being nearly as interesting as the main mystery, it also destroys the pacing. Because of this, it’s a slog to finally get to the denouement, which also ultimately manages to disappoint in its own way with a clichéd and trite conclusion.
Matt Damon stars in the movie as Bill Baker, an unemployed oil worker from Stillwater, Oklahoma who flies to Marseille, France to visit his imprisoned daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin). Allison has been tried and convicted of killing her girlfriend, Lina, and while she has served four years of her sentence, she is not ready to give up on proving her innocence. Her history with her dad is fraught, as he has a history of drug use, a criminal record, and has mostly been an absentee father, but she relies on him to get a note to her lawyer (Anne Le Ny) when she learns about a witness who may be able to support her story.
Bill’s attempt at delivering the message goes poorly, as the attorney tells him that Allison should learn to accept her circumstances – but after having spent years disappointing his child, he decides that he is not going to give up. Lying to Allison, he opts to take on the investigation himself, despite the fact that he is in a country that is not as own and doesn’t speak the language. He winds up befriending a single mother named Virginie (Camille Cottin), and she helps him as her translator, but while the hunt for evidence continues their relationship gets closer, and Bill forms a special bond with her young daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud).
Stillwater winds up being far too distracted by its own secondary plot.
It’s particularly in pursuit of developing that last bit where Stillwater stumbles and falls. It’s not difficult to see what the film is trying to do, as Bill’s relationship with Maya is ostensibly his second chance to act like a proper father figure and make up for the mistakes in his past with Allison, but it’s a wild miscalculation. The “amateur detective in a foreign land” material is engaging and has the clear potential to carry the movie on its own, but it’s diluted by the unnecessary by the over-explored relationship plotline, and every time focus is shifted from the former to the latter the pacing comes to a dead stop.
Diversions and slow pacing distract from what could be an interesting mystery.
In the film’s defense, Bill Baker is an interesting and complex character (one that does a nice job testing Matt Damon’s range), and it’s noteworthy that Stillwater keeps him enigmatic by not overloading the audience with exposition about his dark past. His connection with Virginie and Maya also helps mitigate Taken comparisons, letting a bit of air and romance into the story of a desperate father’s mission to help his daughter – but the relationships develop so bafflingly slowly that it makes the whole movie drag. Without giving too much away, there is even a four month time jump in the middle of the story, and still it takes ages for the screenplay by Tom McCarthy, Thomas Bidegain, Marcus Hinchey, and Noé Debré to get the characters where they need to be in setup for what unfolds as an underwhelming and predictable finale.
Matt Damon and Abigail Breslin both do some impressive work in Stillwater.
Speaking through an ever-clenched jaw, Matt Damon puts on a successfully transformative turn, making for a convincing roughneck and finding a smart balance portraying both Bill’s inner darkness and desire for redemption. Stillwater additionally sports what is some of Abigail Breslin’s strongest and most mature work to date, as her turn is filled with a lot of pain and fear, and her fleeting time with her dad is filled with significant emotional weight. It’s definitely a big blow when, in the middle of the second act, the narrative shifts away from her, as the movie only benefits from her presence and the complicated father/daughter dynamic.
Stillwater isn’t really a bad movie; it’s just a super mediocre one. But while a mediocre movie can be tolerable for 90 minutes, this one excessively overstays its welcome. There is a solid movie buried inside it (which you wish had been noticed during post-production, or perhaps even during the scripting phase), but enveloped as it is in material that slows the whole thing down renders it skippable.