Tom McCarthy, director of the Academy Award-winning Spotlight, marks his return to awards season buzz with his new film Stillwater. Though marketed as a suspense thriller, McCarthy folds multiple tones into a film that sets out to be incredibly character-driven.
McCarthy has not been one to shy away from controversial subjects in the past, and Stillwater is no exception. The film follows Bill Baker (Matt Damon), a roughneck from Stillwater, Oklahoma whose estranged daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) has been wrongly imprisoned in Marseille for the past five years for the murder of her ex-girlfriend. He visits her as frequently as he can, making the trip to France in spite of his financial circumstances.
However, this visit proves to raise tensions with a new witness revelation that sparks hope to prove Allison’s innocence and absolve her of the remaining four-year sentence. This sends Baker on a chase for the true killer in a desperate attempt to save his daughter. Along the way, the roughneck stubbornly navigates a society that he has no ability to communicate with.
Superficially, Stillwater sounds like your typical Liam Neeson suspense thriller that focuses on the mystery and chase of the killer. And you could absolutely say that it is for the first act. However, McCarthy unexpectedly subverts that trope by the second act, winding down and focusing on more intimate character development. Baker’s search lulls and he moves in with newfound friend Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her charming 9-year-old daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). What occurs next is a sequence of incredibly endearing character exploration through the eyes of Bill Baker. We get to see him try to redeem himself as a father figure for young Maya and learn to adapt to a new culture.
Damon is superb in his immersive performance as a Southern oil rig worker who puts up a fight for his family at all costs. His co-stars shine right alongside him, in particular Siauvaud. In fact, Damon expressed during Friday’s press conference that the young actress was “the Meryl Streep of 9-year-olds”. As a result, the character dynamics feel incredibly natural. Despite the film’s standout cast, its tonal shifts feel as though they suffer from awkward transitions. The score feels dated and off-putting for a modern film, loudly overpowering transition sequences with no real need.
By the end of the second act, the film felt like it was going through whiplash tonally. In some ways, it feels as though there are several films in one. Funnily enough, for those who have seen The Secret in Their Eyes, you will notice heavy inspiration from one of its pivotal scenes in Stillwater‘s third act. Fortunately, there is a satisfying albeit bittersweet conclusion to the story of not only how an Oklahoma man copes in French society but how the rest of the world views Americans in the last five years.
Overall, Stillwater stands tall as yet another Oscar contender for McCarthy’s filmography. Damon will likely get his next nomination and perhaps even win as Bill Baker. It would not go undeserved. – Ileana Meléndez
Stillwater will be released in theaters on July 30th, 2021.
The film stars Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, Camille Cottin, and Lilou Siauvaud.