Cinephile: Stillwater – Bay Weekly

Matt Damon stars as “Bill” in director Tom McCarthy’s STILLWATER, a Focus Features release. Credit Jessica Forde / Focus Features

There’s a great movie lurking in this convoluted mess

By Diana Beechener

Bill Baker (Matt Damon: No sudden movement) leads a fairly simple life. He works in construction, cleaning up the havoc left by tornadoes in Oklahoma. He’s a guy who loves guns, prayer, and patriotism, which is why it’s weird that he has to make frequent trips to the south of France.

Bill’s daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin: Zombieland Double Tap), was convicted of murdering her roommate while studying abroad. Now Bill has to travel to visit her as she serves her sentence in Marseille, bringing him treats from her home and trying to force the courts to reconsider their verdict.

When a new clue emerges that could exonerate Allison, Bill decides to extend his stay in France and investigate himself. After a life of addiction and neglect, Bill believes that saving his daughter is his last chance to redeem a wasted life. Immersed among the Marseillais, he sees parallels between his new home and the United States. His views are even more contested when he meets Virginie (Camille Cottin: Call my agent) and her daughter. The duo adopt Bill as their kind of American companion, helping him navigate a strange land.

Can Bill save his daughter? Where is real redemption in the little moments of life?

Still water is a good deal for any movie buff, in that it’s three films mixed into one. Of course, only two of these movies are interesting, but that’s the danger of getting a good deal.

Director Tom McCarthy (Timmy’s failure: mistakes were made) combine Taken, Rome, and Tender thanks in a hodge-podge swollen with themes and ideas. Because the film heads in three different directions, moving from mystery and drama of racial injustice to character study, it bypasses what could have been a powerful film with great performances.

If the story of an American student held in a foreign prison after a murder conviction sounds familiar, it’s because McCarthy (who co-wrote the screenplay) was inspired by the case of Amanda Knox. Although the media is often inspired by actual events, Knox has protested against what she sees as a sensationalist version of her story. Whether you’re on Knox’s or McCarthy’s side, the plot of the murder investigation is the weakest part of the film. It’s underdeveloped, with Breslin having very little to do with his rare scenes.

The real meat of the film comes when Bill is forced to live in a new culture and forge relationships with those around him. His attempts at redemption are beautifully performed and incredibly tender. Bill discovering that he enjoys being a father, helping Virginia with her child, and having his eyes open to different lifestyles is a compelling story that is paralyzed by a mundane mystery. By the time McCarthy tries to wrap up all three storylines, the movie has gotten ridiculous.

While the film itself is an exercise in frustration, Damon’s performance is incredible. He embodies Bill, both physically and emotionally. He has the stiff upper lip and gruff demeanor of a man who hides his feelings under a worn baseball cap. But he begins to melt by finding a second chance in Marseille. These moments are compromised every time Bill tries to help his daughter, his “the end justifies the means” attitude leading him down a dark path. McCarthy should have focused more on learning Damon’s Bill, because the humanity of the film is in those moments.

In place, Still water is a long, maddening movie, if only because you can see the best movie trapped in a larger plot. McCarthy cannot balance the weight of three heavy storylines, and the film is ultimately uneven as a result. While Damon and Cottin both deliver excellent performances, it’s hard to watch them wasted in such a blurry movie.

Fair Drama * R * 139 min.

Comments are closed.