Directed by Tom McCarthy
Written by Tom McCarthy, Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré
Starring Matt Damon, Camille Cottin, Abigail Breslin, Lilou Siauvaud, Deanna Dunagan
Tom McCarthy impressed audiences with his by-the-book procedural in 2015’s “Spotlight,” eventually taking home Oscar glory with a Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay win. He’s back with “Stillwater,” featuring Matt Damon as Bill Baker, a father seeking to find the individual responsible for his daughter’s incarceration in Marseille, France.
We’ve seen Damon in this type of form – a hardened individual who isn’t worldly enough to make his way in a strange land, let alone a land of familiarity. Instead, he’s a down-on-his-luck roughneck looking for odd jobs while the oil rigs sit idly by. You can see by his look on the poster that he’s a righteous individual, that if he knew more than what was in front of his nose, he’d be a stand-up guy.
That isn’t the case. Baker is divorced and barely making it by, letting his past dictate his present.
Co-written with Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noé Debré, McCarthy tells a tale of a man seeking second chances and ultimately redemption as he travels to France to visit his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin). Caught on a manslaughter charge in the death of her girlfriend, Allison is stuck between a rock and a hard place: she has information about the incident that would exonerate her if the attorney representing her would ask investigators to reopen the case.
Thus begins McCarthy’s procedural tale, as the lawyer refuses to accept the new evidence. McCarthy works the same magic formula he found with “Spotlight” here as Bill attempts to find a private investigator willing to take the case for very little money. There’s a scene between Bill and the investigator he interviews with some well-needed humor; McCarthy’s deadly serious about the legalities or illegalities of Baker’s desperate search come to bear, using a deliberate pace with which Baker nearly gives up.
Breslin’s performance caught me off guard just a bit. The makeup and the lighting give her a ghostly, almost ghastly appearance, her teeth deteriorating from lack of care in the jail. Her relationship is tenuous at best with her father. He tries to convince her that things are being taken care of, and a significant disagreement between the two alters McCarthy’s procedural structure with a somewhat softened stance.
Determined to find the persons responsible, Baker extends his stay in Marseille. He can’t do that without the help of Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her eight-year-old daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud.) McCarthy introduces us to Maya as she’s locked out of the hotel room next to Bill’s, thus introducing Virginie, who just the night before was partying with a friend, not giving two craps about disturbing Bill’s sleep.
They are instrumental in helping Bill to stay on, thinking he’d find the missing link in Allison’s case. Instead, McCarthy skillfully paints a picture of second chances as Virginie starts acting in a stage play and Damon chooses to help care for Maya. Damon relishes the role, opening himself up, as he begins to take on responsibility for his life, for their lives, and ultimately for Allison’s life.
Lilou Siauvaud steals the show, precocious at first, eventually warming up to Bill and the audience – McCarthy establishes a genuine connection between the two. Damon plays it to the hilt, his fondness for his children on display. Camille Cottin has a far more complicated relationship with the film, in a good way. She serves as a guide, but she also exerts unexpected independence; if anything, she would serve as a mirror image for Bill, just a bit more evolved.
The technical side of “Stillwater” is on full display as McCarthy stretches his directing chops in a new direction. Tom McArdle’s deliberate editing extends the film perhaps a bit longer than its britches would allow, but McArdle and McCarthy make sure to give each character their moments. It leads to some moments of convenience as far as the story is told, and the successful by-the-book procedural is not on display as much as one would expect with McCarthy. Yet, that is not a detriment to the film. We get room to explore what makes Bill Baker tick, which one might expect as a guest in a foreign country, especially when you don’t speak the language and when the law works against you.
A key point of interest in the film is Masanobu Takayanagi’s gorgeous cinematography. From the occluded skies of Oklahoma to the sun-drenched beaches of Marseille, Takayanagi captures the essence of the two worlds that Bill Baker occupies. Lighting is equally as crucial to the context of the characters as subtle shifts in Damon’s lighting change the character’s emotions, a complicated task given that Baker constantly wears a baseball cap.
Mychael Danna adds an equally important contextual layer with his lush score, giving the characters and their situations a warmer, sharper edge.
Damon is the real star of the film. He received a 10-minute standing ovation from the worldly audience at the film’s recent premiere at Cannes; he deserves every accolade afforded him for this role. McCarthy surrounded Damon with a solid but little-known cast. They pushed themselves beyond their comfort zones with “Stillwater.”
They didn’t achieve perfection; some of the story conveniences are disruptive, and the deliberate pacing, although a benefit for the characters, also intentionally slows the story down just a bit, complicating the flow. Damon keeps his end of the bargain up as a man determined to save his daughter and live his second chance. It changes him unexpectedly and thoughtfully audiences will gravitate toward.
“Stillwater” will find an audience willing to take the journey, and if this were later in the year, it might even be referred to as “Oscar bait,” something I don’t subscribe to. It goes up against Disney’s “Jungle Cruise” and A24’s “The Green Knight” this weekend.
The intentional pacing requires the audience’s participation and will lead to a slow but sure word of mouth. I would rather have seen a platform release at the start of the Awards season at the end of the year. Focus chose to take advantage of the goodwill the film received at Cannes.
After all, we all deserve a second chance.
140 minutes, R, Focus Features/DreamWorks/Amblin Partners/Anonymous Content/Participant