Stillwater is a curious film. Its plot is ripped from the headlines, a riff on the Amanda Knox case. Or so it would seem but director Tom McCarthy lets the film shift and breathe in ways few investigative thrillers do. This can mean that the film shifts suddenly from a charming fish-out-of-water tale to harrowing acts of renegade justice. It would all fall apart if not grounded by an extraordinary performance from Matt Damon.
Damon plays Bill Baker, an Oklahoma blue collar father whose daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) is in prison in Marseilles, France. She was convicted of murdering her girlfriend Lina and is 5 years into her 9 year sentence when the film opens. She insists on her innocence and recently has come across information about a mysterious boy named Akim who may have murdered Lina. He claimed at the time he had stabbed a girl and gotten away with it. Allison gives her father a letter to take to their lawyer. Bill does but the lawyer won't look into the lead, claiming it is hearsay. Bill decides to go on his own to find Akim. In the process he meets Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). The film gives a great deal of time to these relationships Bill forms. In the process, we learn much about Bill. His relationship with Allison is on rough ground. Bill has screwed up many things in his life and his daughter's freedom is a chance to right some of his wrongs.
The side story with Virginie and Maya results in a charming, somewhat romantic element to the film. Bill and Maya get along very well and their relationship is endearing. Maya clearly stands in for Allison and gives Bill a chance to do better than he did in his past. So much time is given to this that it can be a bit jarring when the thriller elements come back into play. Bill sees Akim at one point and hunts him down with Maya in tow. It is a suspense-filled scene that is proceeded by a very touching one. This back and forth of touching drama and vigilante thriller will be too much for some viewers but the performances are so good that I bought it entirely.
Damon fully embodies Bill, sinking into the role. At times he is unrecognizable. He captures midwest mentality so well by paying attention to the details. McCarthy embraces this to paint a rich and full picture of the character. Who eats Subway in France? Bill does and it makes perfect sense. These small details root Bill in Oklahoma even when he is miles away. Damon and Siauvaud have a natural chemistry that carries the film even when things slow down. The rest of the cast is great as well, making the most of small moments. McCarthy is clearly an actor's director and it shows in this character study.
Naturalistic, meandering and moving, Stillwater is unexpected. Damon gives a career best performance here. The film isn't perfect and often rubber-bands in tone. However, it is ultimately a moving and thoughtful film, an adult thriller that only come around so often.