Reviewed for Shockya.com by Abe Friedtanzer
Director: Tom McCarthy
Writer: Tom McCarthy, Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré, Marcus Hinchey
Cast: Matt Damon, Camille Cottin, Abigail Breslin, Deanna Dunagan, Lilou Siauvaud
Screened at: Rodeo Screening Room, LA, 7/27/21
Opens: July 30th, 2021
The case of Amanda Knox, an American student arrested and imprisoned in Italy for the murder of her roommate, was a sensational and controversial ordeal. Certain facts and particulars are still debated, but it serves as yet another cautionary tale of Americans going abroad and facing the unforgiving legal system of another country (see Midnight Express for the most compelling evidence). Rather than adapt that story as is, Stillwater creates a fictionalized scenario that finds its protagonist in France rather than Italy and shifts the narrative away from the antics of the trial and instead to the relentless efforts of one father to prove his daughter’s innocence.
Bill (Matt Damon) is first introduced in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where he interviews for different manual labor gigs and references an earlier layoff due to a reduction in workforce that has put him on the hunt once again for a source of income. He soon departs for Marseille, France, where he arrives and visits his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), who has been in prison for five years following her conviction for killing her roommate and alleged girlfriend. When Allison gives Bill a note to show to her lawyer indicating a new lead in the case and it is swiftly rejected as false hope, Bill decides to investigate it himself, enlisting the help of his hotel neighbor, Virginie (Camille Cottin), whose command of the French language is infinitely better than his own.
This film’s title is an interesting one that speaks to the approach it takes to telling this story. The protagonist is inarguably Bill, not Allison, and the details of her crime only come to light gradually. Bill’s past troubles with alcohol and drugs are alluded to but none of the trial activities are shown. Bill appears extremely dedicated to helping his daughter, and conversations indicate that the loyalty he attempts to now show are in part a result of his failure to prove his resilience and capability when it was most needed. Watching the trial play out would undeniably have been intriguing, but that’s not the story that this film chooses to tell.
Instead, Bill is a man on a mission. Not knowing French is a considerable obstacle, but he quickly determines that Virginie is willing to help him and also strikes up a warm bond with her young daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). He is a man of few words, most of which are “No, sir” and “Yes, ma’am,” and he makes little effort to acclimate to the culture he has found himself in, ignoring the advice of locals to stay away from a certain housing area that he has been told is home to the man who actually killed Allison’s roommate and who may be able to exonerate her.
Damon is an actor who has played affable charmers and subdued spies, and here he disappears into a different kind of role, one that finds him representing Middle America in a way that doesn’t mock its citizens. One memorable scene sees him responding to a question from Virginie’s curious friend about whether he voted for Trump, to which he bluntly says no since his criminal record precluded him from voting, and which includes a dry confirmation that he does in fact own two guns. Damon demonstrates strong chemistry with the talented Cottin and the superb breakthrough Siauvaud in her first film role. Breslin, who was close to Siauvaud’s age when she got her start in films like Little Miss Sunshine, demonstrates a maturity in her portrayal of Allison that makes the missing pieces of her story very alluring and worthy of a more substantial showcase.
This film takes a few unexpected turns on the path to its ending that serve both to engage and to puzzle, seemingly separated enough from reality that they can’t quite be believed but indicative of layered characters who, however inspired by Knox’s story they may be, are indeed fictional. A 140-minute runtime is certainly long, but this film manages to be engrossing throughout, even if the actions of its characters range from troubling to maddening. The end result isn’t entirely satisfactory, but the journey there features worthwhile performances and appropriately complex players.
Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B