Tom McCarthy’s “Stillwater” is riveting yet realistic — an exciting slice of a tragic life. The film takes on an incredibly ambitious story, and while the execution isn’t perfect, its successes are commendable. “Stillwater” is a rare crime drama that does not trade authenticity for melodrama; the movie excellently balances mundanity with ridiculousness and logic with exciting twists. It’s not often you find a world that sucks you in as well and as thoroughly as that of “Stillwater,” and once you’re swept up by its current, there’s no getting off the emotional rollercoaster.
The film follows oil worker Bill Baker (Matt Damon) throughout his mission to clear the name of his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), who is imprisoned in Marseille, France, for the murder of her roommate and girlfriend, Lina. As the undertaking proves longer and more difficult than anticipated, Bill carves out an unexpected new life for himself in Marseille with a woman named Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) — a life that is challenged as the lengths Bill goes to in order to free Allison progressively grow more extreme.
One of the film’s strongest elements is its writing. The dialogue between characters flows naturally and authentically, and the characters themselves and their relationships with one another are realistically nuanced in all their greatness and flaws. It’s quite beautiful to see a roughneck, no-nonsense father navigate an unfamiliar world with the free-spirited, idealistic woman he met on a chance encounter. It’s heart-wrenching to learn about Bill’s shortcomings as a father to Allison, but heartwarming to see him get a second chance at parenthood through Maya.
“Stillwater” takes a handful of individuals stuck in cyclical lives, brings them together and plunges them into the unknown. There is something very special about witnessing these characters gradually change — a rare occurrence at the movies — that feels genuine, refreshing and human.
Another detail in “Stillwater” that demonstrates the thoughtfulness behind its creative decisions is the film’s use of music. The score enhances the emotions already set in place by the writing and acting and complements the flow established by the editing. It is clear that the use of music in the film is deliberate, never working as a crutch.
While the film’s long, multifaceted story is what makes it an enjoyable watch, it is also the root of its greatest shortcomings. “Stillwater” is full of twists and turns as well as dead ends and new leads. These increase in the second half of the film, leaving audiences without enough time to fully absorb its important happenings. When the questions set up throughout the story begin to be answered, the film often relies on rushed solutions and deus ex machina; neither are egregious, but both make you miss the consistent flow of the first act.
Despite the film’s merit, it is difficult to recommend and praise “Stillwater” without acknowledging its heavy influences from the murder of Meredith Kercher. Amanda Knox is an American woman who spent nearly four years imprisoned in Italy after being wrongfully convicted of the murder of Kercher — her former roommate — and suffered intense smearing by the Italian press before her acquittal. Knox has openly criticized the film’s ties to her (McCarthy admits that the premise of the film was inspired by Knox’s story), expressing that the film has damaged her image and character.
The film and its surrounding controversy raise a tricky question: Should artists be held accountable for the damage they might do to real people’s reputations when they use their lives as inspiration for their storytelling? Although the degree to which Knox’s story was intentionally reflected in the film is debatable, the filmmakers’ intention only matters so much in comparison to the film’s ultimate impact.
“Stillwater” is undeniably a sophisticated, quality cinematic experience, but if it damages an innocent person’s reputation in the process, its existence becomes much harder to justify.