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MOVIES: Stillwater - Review

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Stillwater is the latest Tom McCarthy film – loosely based on the Amanda Knox case, it introduces us to a tried and tested, all-American stereotype of a father who finds himself isolated in a fish out of water type way in the coastal French city of Marseille, desperately trying to prove his daughter’s innocence in the wake of her arrest. Only it’s been five years since her imprisonment and evidence is hard to come by, although so Bill Baker thinks – until he gets a next-door neighbour at his hotel to translate a message from her and works out that she believes there could be a case for a reopening the investigation.

It’s a product of the same sort of vigilante justice movies that have followed in the wake of Taken, Unknown, and all the other Liam Neeson movies that we’ve had over the years. Even Matt Damon is no stranger to hard-edged action films, a veteran of the Jason Bourne franchise. Only in this film he uses his reputation as playing Jason Bourne against you – what starts out as a typical American abroad storyline turns into anything but in its third act – and the end result surprisingly didn’t go for once where I was expecting it to.

It’s not quite as cut and dry as it first appears to be – those expecting a simpler punch-up movie on the streets of Marseille are going to only be disappointed. Instead, provides a showcase for both the seedy underbelly of the city and its more glamorous side – giving us a two-pronged offense that taps into French culture, art and theatre, and above everything else, football – everything Bill Baker, a man who stays up late at night watching American sports on a tablet in bed, buying a Subway footlong sandwich rather than sampling any local food, and having no understanding of the language whatsoever – is completely immune to. When he is taken to watch an OM game in the wake of the 2018 World Cup – he gets an exposure to the fire-crackers of the European ultra-football fanbase, a rude awakening. It’s where everything starts to turn sour, and the football game acts as a key turning point for the film – the soundtrack signalling an uneasy feeling that has been growing up to the game itself.

There are impressive elements to like about Stillwater. It is actually surprising – the performances too, are solid. Whilst Matt Damon’s statement on leading men in Hollywood being a dying art might not win any converts with this performance, he does a good job at playing a typical American blue-collar “everyman” – who couldn’t vote in the election due to the fact that he is an ex-con – and Abigail Breslin plays his daughter, Allison Baker, with an air of coldness that gives an immediate father-daughter sense of similarity - albiet with their relationship estranged. As a French co-production Camille Cottin also joins the film to round out the ensemble, and Lilou Siauvaud delivers an impressive performance for such a young actor. Stillwater might not set the awards season alight other than based off Tom McCarthy’s reputation as the director of Spotlight (do check out his excellent Peter Dinklage-starring indie drama, The Station Agent, if you haven’t already. McCarthy brings a touch of workmanlike professionalism to the role – it’s not style over substance, there’s barely any style – it plays out like a grounded procedural – Christian Petzold’s Transit springs to mind as another film set in Marseille dealing with a fish-out-of-water protagonist (although Transit is based off Anna Seghers’ book and features a German fleeing occupation as the lead protagonist rather than an American), but this is less artsy and more mainstream, sacrificing some of the depth that doesn't make the leap across.

Bill Baker is a closed off, restrained man who doesn’t quite know how to display the complex emotions that he’s going through especially in a situation where he doesn’t speak the language. The first half can feel a bit repetitive but it is designed that way – he gets shut doors after shut doors when battling the French bureaucracy and the court system, a completely different environment to the Oil Rigs he grew up working on. He’s asked repeatedly if he owns guns (two guns is the answer) – and listens to country music. He’s the sort of American with a bald eagle tattoo, who prays before every meal (Cottin’s character calls him out on the food being terrible being the reason being because they pray before every meal). A man of few words – but a man of action? His daughter doesn’t seem to want him to trust him with his case, and he’s also living with a heavy shadow that comes with the reputation of such a high-profile case – everybody knows Alison Baker, everybody knows what she's in jail for.

Their trial-and-error tactics to get the truth is a great exploration of vigilante justice and what doesn’t work about it – a character is questioned for answers but he turns out to be a racist who will just lock anybody up given the right incentive. Stillwater acts as a great exploration of the various attitudes between the French and the Americans using both elements of their culture at their most extreme, but also loses a little bit in translation because of that – it’s not quite successful in its approach at portraying both with anything more than one-dimensional stereotypes that it needs, and that also comes across in its pacing - Stillwater can’t escape the feeling that it is maybe twenty or thirty minutes too long – overstaying its welcome and not really doing enough to justify its runtime.

Stillwater forces something of a reckoning between father and daughter that explores the lengths that one man goes for his daughter and questions just how far he will go to prove her innocence even if she may not actually be innocent – there’s a lingering doubt that stays with you throughout. It brings into question morality and the father-daughter dynamic and how unshakable of a bond that is. Unfortunately, the whole film feels empty in its approach, it doesn’t quite recognise as a response to the Amanda Knox case the injustice that she faced, and it doesn’t quite give enough of a reason to sympathise with Alison which the film desperately needed – she never gets the chance to be an actual character. If this film had a little more substance it might come to rival Spotlight, but it feels too empty and one note to get that across.

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