Stillwater Isn’t a Typical True-Crime Drama

The director Tom McCarthy is known for subtle, well-acted character films that take surprising narrative turns. His latest work is no exception.

Matt Damon in "Stillwater"
Jessica Forde / Focus Features

Stillwater’s premise is simple: What if you were Amanda Knox’s father? This Matt Damon–starring project from the director Tom McCarthy is only loosely based on reality, but the dilemma facing roughneck Oklahoma dad Bill Baker (played by Damon) has the same sensational hook: His daughter is imprisoned in Europe after being found guilty of murdering her roommate in a splashy trial. Most viewers will remember that Knox was ultimately exonerated, and might expect Stillwater to be about a similar quest for justice. And it is … until it isn’t.

This is McCarthy’s theatrical follow-up to the Oscar Best Picture–winning Spotlight (he did, in between, make a children’s film for Disney+), and while it has some of the sober fact-finding of that great film, it is more reminiscent of earlier McCarthy works such as Win Win and The Visitor—subtle, well-acted character dramas that take surprising narrative turns. Much of Stillwater’s opening act follows Bill’s amateurish efforts to revive his daughter’s closed case in Marseille, despite not speaking French and having no background in criminal justice. But McCarthy’s excellent, if sprawling, script is more interested in the humans behind the headlines and the messy ways people try to reconcile their grief and guilt after indescribable trauma.

The real-life parallel is, in actuality, little more than a jumping-off point—and one that has frustrated Knox. McCarthy spins the familiar situation into a heartfelt tale of broken people searching for connection, creating a film that’s as indebted to the Dardenne brothers as it is to Taken. He co-wrote Stillwater with Marcus Hinchey, an American, and Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré, two French screenwriters who infuse this fish-out-of-water tale with local authenticity. McCarthy clearly wants the audience to feel disoriented, using the frequently baffled Bill, who struggles to navigate his way through a city and justice system he has no familiarity with, as a surrogate. But as Stillwater progresses, and as Bill gets more distance from his American way of life, the tone becomes warm and romantic, completely reorienting the film’s point of view without any sense of whiplash.

Bill Baker is a challenging hero to root for, a thickly accented lunkhead and self-described screwup who is never without his trucker cap and wraparound shades. But Damon’s performance keeps the character from tipping into parody, even as the French people he meets ask, giggling, if he voted for Donald Trump and owns a gun. Damon plays Bill with wounded sincerity, mixing self-deprecation and toughness as he tries to navigate a different culture and to mend a frosty relationship with his imprisoned daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin). His strained mask of gruff politeness slowly slips over the course of 140 minutes as Bill tries to untangle Allison’s case, then meets and begins an unusual relationship with a French actress named Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud).

This kind of mid-film swerve is a specialty of McCarthy’s; he’s someone who builds out very specific characters and then follows them in organic directions, rather than snapping them into predictable plot formulas. In Stillwater’s opening act, Bill resolves to help his daughter by tracking down the man she thinks is actually responsible for her roommate’s death, but she is skeptical, viewing him as a deadbeat dad not up to the task. Virginie, a neighbor at the Marseille hotel Bill checks into, takes an interest in Allison’s case and offers to help, but McCarthy is more invested in their growing bond and Bill’s tender connection with Maya, which turns into his attempt at a parenting do-over after his mistakes with Allison.

Still, McCarthy never lets the cloud of the murder case dissipate completely, even as Bill initially makes little headway. The sweet second act of Stillwater, which follows his deepening relationship with Virginie, is the film’s strongest. The third, which conjures a new development in the investigation, is far more shambolic, working to provide definitive answers to a mystery that probably didn’t need to be solved. Stillwater thrives in more ambiguous territory, when it merely hints at the details of the murder Allison was convicted of, and Bill’s past failures as a father.

But even the somewhat-hackneyed final twists help underline the film’s wider theme, which is the extraordinary capacity people have for change even in strange circumstances. McCarthy presents characters who seem easy to pigeonhole, then resists easy labels. The result is far more captivating than an ordinary true-crime drama. As the cinema business shakily resumes post-pandemic, big-budget blockbusters conforming to familiar narratives are dominating multiplexes; Stillwater is a mainstream work that contradicts preconceived notions, and is all the more fascinating for it.