It is common parlance to talk of still waters running deep. Alas, Tom McCarthy’s Stillwater is a stagnant shallow pool. McCarthy is normally such an exceptional writer, with a real ear for great dialogue (as in Spotlight), but this film is tone deaf and a huge disappointment for fans of his work.
The story is also a little tricky for McCarthy has adapted the Amanda Knox true story, transposing the action to Marseille and focussing on the father Bill Baker (Matt Damon) and his private investigation to prove his daughter’s innocence. Bill is a monosyllabic, God-fearing oil rig worker from Stillwater, Oklahoma, which is exactly as dull as its name suggests. On his trip to Marseille, he discovers that there is a man who has boasted of getting away with stabbing a girl to death. Is this the real murderer? Bill embarks on finding the perpetrator and obtaining his DNA, which will lead to his daughter’s release. Does he speak French? Mais, non! But as luck would have it, a charming French woman and her daughter are his hotel neighbours and the lovely mum Virginie (Camille Cottin) is happy to help.
And so for more than two hours, the audience has to endure watching Bill on his quest. We watch him head to the dangerous projects to search for the mystery man and take on a bunch of local yobs. We see him put Virginie’s daughter in potential danger when stalking his prey and plenty of other hackneyed scenes seen many times before. Through his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) we learn of Bill’s erstwhile boozing and drug use: ‘What is wrong with us?’ she wails, to which I would answer: ‘It’s not you, it’s the director who’s to blame.’
It is hard to understand what on earth Virginie sees in Bill. She’s an actress in the theatre, beautiful, intellectual and bright. Bill is a mumbling and unsophisticated blokey bloke. It’s nice having someone who can fix your toilet and sort out your fuse box, but I’m not sure that’s enough to make a woman fall in love. For Damon, who can be so full of charm and has a bobby-dazzler smile, is utterly charmless here, hiding that star wattage under his baseball cap and never letting it shine to indicate some kind of character development or growth after spending time in the company of his charming new family.
Is Allison innocent? How far will a father go for his daughter? Does doing something bad to prove someone is good make you a monster? These are interesting questions, but the film does not tackle them well. Only Cottin shines in this film. McCarthy, Damon and Breslin are better than this, and frankly a story based on the murder of a young woman deserves a better film than this.