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Ripped from headlines, ‘Stillwater’ is more muddled than nuanced

By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

“Life is brutal.” If there’s a kernel of hard-earned, if blunt, wisdom to be gleaned from Tom McCarthy’s latest film “Stillwater,” this is it. It’s a sentiment repeated by both father (Matt Damon) and daughter (Abigail Breslin) with a resoluteness that comes from experience, but it’s unclear if “Stillwater” has anything other to impart than this defeated sentiment even after 2½ hours of twisty, tabloid-inspired plot.

“Stillwater” refers to the Oklahoma town where Bill Baker (Damon) is from; it also ostensibly refers to stoic roughneck Bill himself. “Still waters run deep,” as they say, so we are to understand that there’s more to Bill than just his solitary existence picking up manual labor gigs while in between oil jobs, dutifully saying grace over every fast food meal. There is much more to Bill’s life as we discover when he jets off to Marseille, France, moving about the city with a practiced sense of routine. He’s visiting his daughter, Allison (Breslin), in prison.

Therein lies the true crime inspiration of “Stillwater,” which is essentially based on the Amanda Knox saga. Allison, despite her protestations of innocence, has been convicted of murdering her live-in lover, Lina, a young French Muslim woman. Rather than depicting the story from its outset, McCarthy and co-writers Thomas Bidegain, Marcus Hinchey and Noe Debre pick it up five years in when Allison wants to track down a new lead based on a piece of jailhouse gossip.

Her lawyers aren’t interested in reopening the investigation and urge Bill not to give Allison false hope, but he barrels directly into false hope territory, assuring her they’re looking into it while he bumbles about Marseille attempting to track down a young hoodlum named Akim (Idir Azougli), who lives in the roughest part of town, Kalliste. Bill manages to incur the sympathies of a French woman, Virginie (Camille Cottin), and the affection of her young daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), and she becomes his translator, driver and, later, landlord.

“Stillwater” is a rather strange film. It has the premise and plot of a B-movie schlock thriller (in the hands of an action auteur and at a brisk 90 minutes, it would be an entirely different beast), but the pedigree and tone of a prestige drama. McCarthy, and indeed Damon, in his stilted performance, would like “Stillwater” to say something profound about American culture via this Southern oilman’s journey as a stranger in a strange land, but all they can really muster up is a few lines about how the French are aghast that Bill owns a gun. The messaging isn’t nuanced as it is muddled.

Damon is indeed transformed in this performance: bulky, goateed, his sweat-stained baseball cap firmly affixed to his head. But he plays Bill with a stiffness that feels unnatural. We’re to see his ramrod straight Americanness juxtaposed against Virginie’s free bohemian character as some sort of comment on, what, exactly? Damon barely lets him loosen up at all, and the treatment of Bill by both actor and director is less humanizing than it is patronizing.

A series of increasingly bizarre plot twists in the third act also betrays any profundity that the filmmakers may try to convey. If we’re to empathize with Bill and Allison’s plight, it’s made even more challenging if we question the filmmakers’ empathy for these characters and begs the question of why we’re experiencing this story of a young woman’s murder through Bill’s perspective at all. Life may indeed be brutal for Bill and Allison, but any brutality they’ve experienced pales in comparison to the victim, one of many lingering questions that “Stillwater” frustratingly resists.

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