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‘Stillwater’ does not run deep enough

Still waters run deep but not deep enough in Matt Damon’s new film Stillwater.

Written and directed by Oscar-winning Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), the film takes a whiff of inspiration from what happened to American student Amanda Knox in Italy over a decade ago and spins it into a contemporary story about a father’s determined attempt to free his daughter from a French prison.

Matt Damon plays the aggrieved dad, an out-of-work oil rigger from Stillwater, Oklahoma, named Bill Baker. Financially down-on-his-luck and unable to find a job, he ends up taking on construction work overseas, in Marseille, of all places. But Marseille is no accident. That’s where his 20-something daughter Allison has been locked up for the last five years for the murder of her roommate.

With four long years still left on her sentence, Baker decides he’s going to find a way to overturn the injustice done to his daughter. When Allison tells him another young woman told her that she knew a guy who was bragging that he had killed her roommate, Baker is convinced he’ll get the case re-opened. But when that hearsay is dismissed in a French court as mere hearsay, Baker is stymied and decides to take matters into his own hands.

The movie’s trailer might lead you to think we’re now about to enter Liam Neeson’s Taken territory, but Baker lacks Neeson’s “very particular set of skills.” Instead, without knowing a lick of French, and utterly dismissive of cultural differences, Baker bulls his way into the case — insulting his daughter’s lawyer, badgering potential witnesses, stupidly venturing into the French “projects” alone and at night to find a possible suspect. He ends up making matters even worse for his daughter. At one point, Allison screams her disappointment in him: “You’re always such a screw-up,” or something to that effect.

Stillwater eventually becomes less of a thriller and more of a character study of Baker. He’s kind of an ugly American who’s forgiven a lot because he has such a big, big heart. And Allison is right — he’s screwed up his life big-time. He’s a drunk and a felon, his wife killed herself (perhaps on his account), and he wasn’t around to parent his daughter after her mom died and now she’s serving a prison sentence for murder in a foreign country. His life is pretty much in shambles.

As he stumbles along in his months-long effort to track down the real killer, Baker’s rough-around-the-edges personality slowly gives way to his inner “nice guy.” He ends up babysitting his translator’s grade-school age daughter so much that he begins to discover the joys of fatherhood. It’s as if he’s making amends for neglecting his own offspring, and even Allison ends up approving of this new father-figure manifestation.

Unfortunately, McCarthy can’t let well enough alone. This “fish-out-of-water”/father-daughter redemption angle gives way, in the last act, to the film’s thriller roots, and promptly disavows all the painstaking character development we’ve witnessed in Baker over the last two hours. What a waste.

In the end, Baker is convinced he now sees the world differently after all he’s gone through in Marseille. I remain less convinced.

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