Tom McCarthy’s Stillwater is a lot of movie, which is both its flaw and its virtue. By the end of its nearly two and a half hour runtime, you will have felt every minute of it- in other words, there is certainly two and a half hours worth of material. It is long, yet in my eyes, it’s a thoroughly compelling and richly entertaining character study that held me in its grip even as it was exhausting me. The verdict on this movie appears to be pretty mixed, so it will probably hit others differently.
Front and center is a performance from Matt Damon that could very well nab him an Academy Award nomination. Pretty much from the second he enters the film, we fully buy into this performance. He is a flesh-and-blood, full-blooded American, yet with inner pain, and at times Damon’s work here is so convincing that you sometimes forget you’re watching Matt Damon. He isn’t alone, as every performance in Stillwater works rather well, and the material they’re given works too.
Stillwater follows Bill, who resides in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Not a whole lot of the film takes place in Stillwater, but Stillwater is the title of the film for a pretty significant reason. Anyways, Bill travels to Marseille, France, to see his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), who was imprisoned five years prior for allegedly murdering her girlfriend. Upon Bill’s arrival, Allison urges Bill to give a note to her main investigator. Said note contains evidence that could potentially prove her innocence.
Upon giving the letter though, he is told up front that they won’t look into the case again, based on hearsay. Bill is also urged not to give her false hope. One thing that works about Stillwater is the way in which the characters are progressively developed. Bill tells Allison that the investigators are going to look into it, but in reality, he is going to do anything in his power to find the killer and bring Allison to justice. Bill’s reasons for lying are subtle, and yet the more we get to know this guy, the more we see what really drives him. This is essentially the first act of Stillwater, with the second act becoming something else, while also working effectively due to the groundwork laid out convincingly in the first act.
Much of Stillwater belongs to Damon, who goes from stern to tender to threatening without ever losing sight of the character. It feels like it’s been a while since Breslin has gotten a chance to shine, but she’s pretty strong here as a young woman whose life has been unjustly taken away from her. Camille Cottin is excellent too as a single mother who befriends Bill. Yet reflecting upon Stillwater as an experience, perhaps my favorite aspect of the film lies in the details. The way that lines and objects are included early and throughout, and yet their significance was in front of us the whole time. Not to mention the character development- it makes you appreciate the craftsmanship of the whole thing.
McCarthy is an interesting filmmaker, making small dramas (The Visitor, The Station Agent) to family friendly fare (Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, The Cobbler). He also made the Best Picture winning Spotlight, which is as great as drama can get. Stillwater isn’t a triumph- it is a lot of movie, and there is a political touch or two that doesn’t have too much of a point. But here is an adult drama, occasional thriller, that held me in its grip for pretty much the entirety of its runtime, and almost never missed a beat. Great drama, it is not, but really good drama it is.