Stillwater – Amanda Knox-inspired drama is slow but solid
Whoever said “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” clearly didn’t work on publicity for Stillwater, as this week’s drama comes to the screen with a lot of baggage. The film is very loosely inspired by the trial of Amanda Knox, who posted tweets denouncing the film. As if that wasn’t enough, star Matt Damon made headlines this week with some comments about homophobia (the actor has since clarified and denied any prejudice).
Trapped somewhere underneath all this controversy is a movie. Directed by Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), Damon stars as Bill Baker, an Oklahoma oil rig worker with a strong religious faith and a troubled past. Making ends meet in the US, he travels to Marseille regularly to visit his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin). For the last four years, Allison has been in prison in the French city, convicted of killing her roommate and lover Lina. She insists she’s innocent, and asks Bill to pass a potential lead on to her lawyer, who dismisses it as false hope. Unwilling to disappoint his daughter, Bill investigates on his own, putting his safety at risk to find answers.
Given the set-up and Damon’s CV, you half-expect this to become another Taken clone, with Bill tearing up the streets in search of justice. Instead, we get a sombre fish-out-of-water story, with Southern Boy Bill trying to negotiate with locals who roll their eyes at his lack of understanding. The most interesting moments are when he encounters resistance based on cultural assumptions: a tutor suggests Allison’s lover thought she was a “rich American”, while allusions are made to Trump and the Mexican border. As a study of The States’ standing internationally after the past five years, it’s quite effective.
Damon plays Bill with understated Conservatism. Rarely seen without his cap, he loves college football and ends every sentence with “yes Ma’am”. It’s a fun contrast with the European surroundings, and is used to lighten the mood as Bill strikes up a bond with stage actor Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). Their tender dynamic distracts from the far-fetched nature of the relationship, and allows us to see a more vulnerable side to our hero.
As for the main plot, there’s a lot of repetitive meetings in cafes and offices, usually ending with Bill storming out. The real dramatic impact comes from the prison visits with Allison, thanks to a powerful performance by Breslin. There’s a desperation to every line that draws a question mark, as we decide whether these are the pleas of an innocent woman, or the lies of a murderer. The parallels with Knox’s story are plain to see, and it’s understandable why she took exception. Nevertheless, as a fictional character, Breslin works with what she has to create more than weeping support.
The final act turns the heat up a bit, as Bill gets closer and turns to more desperate means. The conclusion will raise some eyebrows, but in the main Stillwater is a solid drama that plays to the crowd effectively.
Stillwater is in cinemas from 6th August.