Directed by Tom McCarthy
Rating: *** ½
We all make mistakes. Alison (Abigail Breslin, remember her in Manoj Shaymalan’s only halfway decent film Signs in recent years?) asked a friend to help her deal with her roommate and now Alison is in jail in Marseilles where she was a student, for murder.
Alison’s father Bill Baker, played by the incredibly convincing Matt Damon makes many mistakes; the one that sticks out like a sore thumb is when he kidnaps the murder suspect in his daughter’s case from a football match in a crowded stadium and holds him hostage in the basement of his benefactor’s home: a French woman Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her little daughter Maya (scene-stealer Lilou Siauvaud).
Stillwater (the title hinges on a slim necklace) is about fatally-wrong decisions and how the people close to the one making that mistake suffer the consequences. It’s a deeply rich drama where tears and hysteria have no place. There’s too much to do. Bill needs to get his daughter out of prison and the only way to do it is to get the actual murderer to confess.
A tall order. The means that Bill adopts become progressively hard to believe until the improbabilities become unbearably voluminous. Nonetheless I found myself seriously moved by the protagonist’s predicament as a parent whose child is in prison for a crime she says she did not commit.
Stillwater is also about degrees of guilt. What may seem like innocence to the accused may not be the same for those trying to prove the innocence. Stillwater has a lot of beneath-the-surface conflicts to cope with while on the surface it remains deceptively calm, almost placid, underneath there constant churning.
I don’t know if this is a narrative failure. But I found Bill’s relationship with little Maya far more sorted and sublime, probably because his real daughter is in jail and hence in no position to bond. When they do meet in prison Alison gets busy bullying her father with recriminations for not getting her out.
Incidentally Abigail Breslin as Alison could have done so much more with her complex part of a lesbian murder-accused and damned daughter. Breslin is strangely listless, as though she had decided on Alison’s guilt long back.
What works is Damon’s working-class dad’s eclectic angst. He is a determined father and also an underpaid white-collar worker who would remain faceless in a crowd. At the end of the film when his daughter tells him that everything looks the same in their hometown in Oklahoma, he counters her comment by saying, “Nothing is the same any more.”
Stillwater is not as life-changing for us the audience as it is for the protagonist. Still, it shakes us up and touches us in places where cinema today rarely does.
Like I said, everyone makes mistakes. You would be making one by missing Stillwater.