Truth and fiction can be a matter of perspective. Because of this, one’s guilt or innocence can shift more to one side than another based on who’s doing the judging. In family squabbles, it’s often harder to identify the guilty party in scrap because everyone is too close, too hot, too inclined to see themselves as the hero of their story rather than the villain of someone else’s. This is why the truth hurts as often as it does, because facing the fact that we’re just as complicit in causing pain can be difficult to endure. It’s easier to blame others and ride on our high horse. To a degree, this is a significant motivator in the family drama at the heart of co-writer/director Tom McCarthy’s (Spotlight) dramatic thriller Stillwater, starring Matt Damon (The Last Duel), Camille Cottin (Petite Vampire), Lilou Siauvaud (Everything can happen!), and Abigail Breslin (Maggie). If we can’t take responsibility for our own choices, then there can be no moving forward and your life will become a prison of your own making.
Bill Baker (Damon) is an out of work oil rigger willing to do whatever job he needs to pay the bills. Despite going on multiple job interviews, he’s not getting much in the way of call-backs, so he picks up odd jobs here and there, like clearly debris after a tornado strike. As relationships are important to him, he is close to his mother-in-law Sharon (Deanna Dunagan), and continually tries to maintain one with his daughter Allison (Breslin), though that is harder since she moved to Marseille, France, for school. Even harder after she was convicted of murder and sentenced to prison. On his most recent visit to her, she asks him to pass a letter to her lawyer, setting into motion a series of events that would change their lives forever.
With this being a first-time review, I tend to start with thoughts on the film proper, but it’s more important to begin with the bonus features and build from there. So if you’ve yet to see the film, be advised that there will be details of the film discussed.
The Focus Features-released film includes three brief featurettes that tackle location, cast, direction, and content in varying approaches. The longest, “An Alchemy of Viewpoints,” runs just over five minutes, offering the most comprehensive coverage of material. The shortest, “An American in Marseilles: The Locations of Stillwater,” is three minutes and sixteen seconds of discussion regarding why Marseilles was chosen and the creative distinction between Stillwater, Oklahoma, where the film begins and Marseilles, which makes up 90% of the narrative. In the middle lies “With Curiosity & Compassion: Director Tom McCarthy,” which, at nearly three and a half minutes, brings the focus on the co-writer/director and his approach to the creative process of developing the script and being on set. Across the roughly 12 minutes of material, home viewing audiences will earn a better sense of what went into making the film with enough broad strokes to feel like they have a more profound understanding of the filmmaking process. That said, there is one glaring issue regarding the bonus features that spills over into how one might view Stillwater as a whole and it comes up within “With Curiosity & Compassion.”
Unless you read the production notes included with the electronic press kit (something the average filmgoer won’t have access to), then you’d have no idea that the narrative foundation of Stillwater comes from the real-life international case of Amanda Knox, who was accused, tried, and convicted of murdering her roommate despite her innocence, as the film makes no mention of this before the film starts or the credits roll. While the specific details themselves change, Stillwater alters the outcome to include a family drama wherein Allison’s father takes on the task of freeing his daughter himself. McCarthy says in the production notes about the original script that, “It was a strong premise, but the script didn’t work. It lacked the depth and humanity as evidenced is some Mediterranean Noir novels that inspired the script. The world had also changed a lot, with America moving towards nationalism and populism, a key shift that provided a meaningful new aspect to Bill as well as further complicate his journey abroad. Seeing the character through that lens was significant and provided me with new inspiration to reapproach it.” The end result is a film which decenters Allison, the Knox surrogate, and places Bill at the core. So not only did McCarthy and fellow writers Marcus Hinchey (Come Sunday), Thomas Bidegain (The Sisters Brothers), and Noé Debré (Dheepan) borrow from Knox without permission, but they made her pain the catalyst to explore fatherhood, family strife, and American values. Oddly, that last part is barely a blip on the overall narrative in the final production outside of a few comments about racism and someone asking Bill if he voted for President Trump (something the film side-steps by giving Bill a record and removing his right to vote (itself a whole other issue the film doesn’t address)). It’s not unheard of for storytellers to borrow from real world events, it happens on crime procedurals all the time, yet McCarthy never reached out to Knox, who was eventually found innocent of the crime and freed. That the film allows Allison to go free yet retain blood on her hands, while Bill himself did some horrible things to help earn his daughter’s freedom creates a line from fiction to the real world for anyone who discovers the inspiration without looking into the differences in the details. If you’re a storyteller, you serve the story. If you’re taking from real events, there’s a line of ethics that shouldn’t be crossed and it very much feels like McCarthy not only crossed the line, but did so with a certain thoughtlessness that’s damning and hard to ignore.
There are some in the field of criticism that proclaim that the art should be judged on its own merits and not on perceived slights. To a degree, I agree completely. However, I’d argue that criticism without context is antithetical to its purpose. One can certainly offer their thoughts on technique in direction, the screenplay, or performance and that’s fine. There’s a place for that kind of analysis. But art isn’t created in a vacuum and if McCarthy’s intent is to explore the fish-out-of-water Bill within the context of international affairs, it could be done without smearing an innocent woman in the process. It’s part of what bothered me about Bohemian Rhapsody in the way that it altered details of history to make Freddie look horrible and the surviving members of the band spotless. You can tell a story without harming others and, when you can’t, it needs to be addressed in the analysis. Context matters in art.
That said, the performances from the central cast, especially Siauvaud, are unexpectedly compelling and are able to maintain their realism even as the film shifts from drama into thriller back to drama and then nosedives into unexpected territory before the end. Up until the script presents an opportunity for Bill to catch the lost suspected perpetrator of the crime that Allison is in prison for at the risk of endangering young Siauvaud’s Maya, there’s a rather lovely father-daughter story of familial estrangement, acceptance, and healing. That we naturally learn in bits and pieces how egregiously Bill screwed up over and over to inspire his daughter to move to France and never lose respect for the man as he is speaks to both Damon’s captivating performance and the willingness of the script to play things slow, to allow the audience to shed their preconceptions of who Bill is. Once the opportunity comes, though, we truly understand how greatly it pains Bill to lose what his redemption has earned at the risk of clearing his daughter’s name. As a parent myself, the desire to protect my children is strong and here Bill is having to choose between the child who idolizes him (Maya), who he chooses to love dearly, and the one he failed so horribly (Allison). How do you make that choiceless choice? Where the narrative lost me isn’t in Bill kidnapping the suspect or keeping him hidden in a basement or that Cottin’s Virginie, the woman who’s come to love him, helps him avoid arrest by the police, but that Allison is guilty of the crime by way of hiring the suspect. That murder was an accidental result doesn’t change her connection to the crime, but she is freed and allowed to go home: all of which Bill is firmly aware of. That the film ends with this knowledge, without exploring what it means, especially after spending so much time trying to prove Allison’s innocence, a question arises: what was the point? There’s no real conversation about American or international politics, Allison is the catalyst not the core of the narrative, and Bill’s journey to a foreign country results in him breaking many laws without punishment. There is nothing left but a wake of pain and grief that’s left unaddressed. Why then was it necessary to use Knox’s pain for this story if it’s going to end in such a manner?
Compelling though the film may be, between the feckless appropriation/adaptation of Knox’s story and the sharp turn of the narrative without a purpose, it’s difficult to recommend Stillwater. Can it be enjoyed without the awareness of the inspiration? Absolutely. The performances are strong and by shooting in Marseilles there’s a groundedness to everything that a set can’t replicate. Some might even be able to wave off the Knox connection as unimportant once found out, but it’s hard to deny that, once knowing how the two are intertwined, either the person or the film is hard to look at the same way. Had McCarthy worked with Knox in the adaptation or made choices that created a greater separation between truth and fiction, perhaps the film could stand on its own more freely without comparison. Sadly, we’ll never know.
Stillwater Special Features:
- An Alchemy of Viewpoints (5:17)
- An American in Marseilles: The Locations of Stillwater (3:16)
- With Curiosity & Compassion: Director Tom McCarthy (3:25)
Available on digital October 12th, 2021.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD October 26th, 2021.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.