Oil-rig worker Bill (Matt Damon) goes to Marseilles to help his imprisoned daughter (Abigail Breslin), who continues to protest her innocence in a murder. While there, his life begins to alter drastically, as he comes into contact with Virginie (Camille Cotton).
Going into 'Stillwater', you'd be forgiven for thinking this has something in common with Liam Neeson and 'Taken'. It's set in the same country, after all. Matt Damon has heavy action credentials as we know from his years as Jason Bourne. They're both essentially about a concerned parent trying to save their child. As much as it's possible, go into this movie reading precious little about it and you'll enjoy it far more. Director-writer Tom McCarthy, together with co-writers Marcus Hinchey and Thomas Bidegain, expertly unravel the story bit by bit, drawing us into this world but more importantly, into these characters' lives.
There are few actors working today at Matt Damon's level who can still manage to disappear into a role as he does. His physical presence on screen is one thing, but it's in how he moves, speaks or more pointedly doesn't speak, how he carries himself, that makes it so transformative. It's not just as simple as an accent or a costume choice, but rather that he assumes the role with such conviction and determination. His character is one that walks around with a deep reservoir of anguish, but he does everything he can to push it down. That's a difficult thing to get across, particularly when a story like this has so many moving parts to it. Yet, it causes some of the most heartbreaking moments in 'Stillwater', particularly the final scene.
Paired with Damon is Camille Cottin, best known to audiences for Netflix's excellent comedy series 'Call My Agent!'. When placed alongside Damon, the two couldn't be more different and you could easily watch a movie with just the two of them. Yet, 'Stillwater' manages to put them together with a well-told crime drama, and, on top of that, a tense family dynamic with Abigail Breslin's character. You're never quite exactly sure where they're at, or more pointedly, how it is that they came to be there.
What makes 'Stillwater' such a compelling piece of work is how the story builds together at its own pace. We're only told something when it's relevant or has a function to character, so it never feels like we're getting some glut of clunky exposition, or indeed left wondering what's happened by the end of it. As to the connection with Amanda Knox, there's really only a kernel or two remaining - basically, American girl imprisoned in foreign country with questions remaining about said imprisonment. The media frenzy, for instance, is largely relegated to a few mentions, and the lurid details of the murder are mostly ignored. Instead, the movie examines the aftermath and the lingering resentments, not to mention the emotional toll of something like this on an already fractured relationship between a child and a parent.
Understated, mature dramas like 'Stillwater' are a precious thing in cinemas these days, particularly ones that carry a name-recognition actor like Matt Damon. It's normally the case that you'll find something like this as a vanity project, but it couldn't be further from that. Damon gives one of his most vulnerable performances in years, reaching back almost to the likes of 'Good Will Hunting' or, more recently, 'Promised Land'. Abigail Breslin too soaks up the screen and gives a truthful performance as a person broken and desperate, but still clinging on to both her chances and her own secrets. Caught in the middle of this is Camille Cottin, who has a real warmth and humanity to her that carries the movie through some of its darker moments.
What 'Stillwater' may lack in originality in its overall concept, it more than makes up for it with performances of substance by its cast, a rich and complex script, and careful direction.