Stillwater – Matt Damon stars in thriller somewhat based on true events
Stillwater follows Bill, an American oil-rig roughneck from Oklahoma (Matt Damon), who travels to Marseille to visit his estranged daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), who while studying in Marseille was charged and sent to prison for the murder of her friend and life-partner Lina, which she claims she did not commit. The film is partially based on the 2007 Amanda Knox case.
Confronted with language barriers, cultural differences, and a complicated legal system, Bill builds a new life for himself in France as he makes it his personal mission to exonerate his daughter. Allison recalls a moment from the evening of the murder that could possibly exonerate her, and presses Bill to engage their lawyer, but when their lawyer rebuffs them, Bill takes matters into his own hands. He makes it his personal mission to find the real culprit, a man Allison has identified as Akim. He is aided by a French woman, Virginie (Camille Cottin), and her eight-year-old daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). As the pressure mounts, he must decide just how far he’s willing to go.
This movie will be memorable for me, not only for the twists and thrills that a great mystery offers, but for being the first film I saw in a movie theatre since the pandemic. It reminded me of how much better blockbuster films are on the big screen in surround sound. So much more immersive.
As for the film itself, I inadvertently had seen a couple earlier review headings, and critic ratings, which all indicated this was going to be a dud. I’m not one for giving other people’s opinions much value, so I still went forward with an open mind, and was more than pleased with this production. Matt Damon gives a superb performance as a stereotypical uneducated working class blue collar American travelling abroad. Both Breslin and Cottin deliver solid performances as well, as does young newcomer, Siauvaud.
While a bit on the long side, clocking in at over two hours long, the suspense didn’t seem to stop. In fact, it only got more intense the further into the film it got. Although the storyline is somewhat based on true events, it is a fictionalized account, which comes off as very real. There are some parts that perhaps seem out of context, such as Bill’s fast tracked relationship with Virginie, whom he meets at the hotel he’s staying at, and they end up becoming friends, roommates, and eventually lovers.
The troubled past of Bill’s alcohol and drug abuse, along with his broken relationships with his wife and daughter, seem to haunt him forever despite his willingness to prove he’s a changed man. Deep down though, he’s a southerner who carries guns and likes to fight. There are many moments when the film feels like it’s about to end, and then another suspenseful turn will happen. While the film is about finding out the truth, and enacting revenge on the real murderer, it’s also about family relationships and what members will do to help each other in times of need. So, despite some negative reviews and ratings, I’d recommend seeing this film, and in a theatre for the full experience.
Stillwater had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on July 8, 2021, and is scheduled to be released in theatres across North America on July 30, 2021, by Focus Features. Sidenote: Stillwater is a real city in Payne County, Oklahoma, where country music superstar Garth Brooks hails from.
Writer-director Tom McCarthy was one of the many people who found himself fascinated by the details of the 2007 Amanda Knox case, an American student living in Italy, who was arrested and charged with the murder of her roommate. She was convicted and sentenced to a lengthy prison term—even though she maintained her innocence.
STATEMENT FROM THE DIRECTOR, TOM MCCARTHY
I began working on Stillwater about ten years ago. I set out with the intention to make a thriller set in a European port city. I was inspired by a number of Mediterranean Noir writers like Andrea Camilleri, Massimo Carlotto, and Jean-Claude Izzo, whose brilliant Marseille Trilogy led me to the French city. One visit to Marseille and I knew that I found my port. The layers and textures of the city were undeniably cinematic, and the confluence of cultures and the pace of the seaside metropolis felt like the perfect canvas for the film.
But when the first draft was finished, I realized it wasn’t the movie I wanted to make. It lacked dimension, humanity, and a point of view — some of the key elements that drew me to Mediterranean noir genre. Those novels all account for the life around the crime pushing beyond the genre. Ultimately, I wanted my film to do the same.
I set the script down and picked it back up about seven years later and gave it a fresh read. I still liked the set up, but my previous concerns remained. It still wasn’t a script I was prepared to direct. So, I reached out to French writing team Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré. I sent them the draft, and we had a very awkward zoom call where they carefully laid out a few fundamental flaws in the approach to the script. I flew to Paris a few weeks later and we spent a week in a room together reimagining the movie, which was the beginning of an eighteen-month writing process, which began in the fall of the 2016.
Of course, the world around us had begun to drastically change. The United States had taken an alarming turn towards populism, and Americans were becoming increasingly alienated not only from each other, but also from the rest of the world. That sobering reality gave us new outlook on Bill’s journey abroad, as he desperately tries to navigate a new culture, language, and justice system to save his only daughter.
What was exciting about reimagining the script in this context was the opportunity to subvert expectations of Bill – both as the quintessential “American hero” and protagonist of this story, as well as an outsider entering a community that views him in a certain light. At many moments throughout the film, Bill is revealed as a flawed man who, despite his best efforts, can’t escape his own past. We began to examine more closely the notion of Americas moral authority in a country and a world where nationalism was on the rise. Even when we think our motivations seem pure in our own mind, myopia can distort our moral compass.
Furthermore, we feel that audiences were conditioned to expect the hero to stop at nothing to protect his family or what he thinks is right. If the movie were a pure thriller, we would be applauding Bill’s relentless pursuit of that objective. But we were more interested in examining
the personal consequences of Bill pursuing his singular imperative. He ultimately gets what he wants but at what price? What does he sacrifice and how does that kind of thinking play out our world today?
Living and shooting in Marseille had a huge impact on the film. We didn’t spend a day on a stage. I could feel my team digging deeper and deeper into the city, and the more we leaned into it, the more the city opened up and revealed itself to us. From the stunning Calanques to the massive Velodrome to the old prison in Les Baumettes. I don’t think there was a day or a location that we didn’t feel inspired by. And credit my production designer, Phil Messina with providing our Marseille canvas in such an intimate and authentic way.
Though Marseille is the primary setting of the film, Bill’s past in Oklahoma also plays an important role in the story and his character development. We tried to reflect the impact these two places – Marseille and Oklahoma – have on Bill and Allison through the brilliant cinematography of Masa Takayanagi. We decided that we would start the film in Oklahoma shooting with Anamorphic lenses. We did this to enhance the solitude and isolation of Bill in the frame, using a shallower depth of field and wider field of view. The camera was static, rooted to the earth. When Bill steps off the plane in Marseille, however, the camera starts to move. It has the kinetic, spontaneous, grittiness of Marseille, which translated to handheld for much of Marseille.
Finally, when we returned to Oklahoma, we brought the spherical lenses with us as if Bill brought something back with him from Marseille. But our camera became static once again, indicating that Oklahoma, the place, has not changed, just Bill and Allison. We shot the last scene of the film with hand-held to capture both the sense of intimacy and immediacy and also to deepen the emotional connection to Marseille, a city that continues to haunt them.
From the script stage on through production, making Stillwater was very much a collaboration not only of talents, but cinematic cultures. I was constantly being challenged to examine my long-standing approach and motivations, leaning on and learning from the French way of filmmaking. Although I brought some of my key crew with me (Masanobu Takayanagi – DP, Phil Messina – PD, and Walter Gasparovic – AD) I would say that about 90% of our crew was French.
Every step of the production was also informed by the time we spent immersed in the divergent cultures of Oklahoma and Marseille, and by the many individuals in each location who generously shared their insights and perspectives as we were developing the script.
One final note is just how instrumental Matt Damon was to the execution of this film. The entire cast is just terrific from Camille Cotton to Abigail Breslin and our secret weapon, Lilou
Siauvaud. But it’s Matt’s central performance that anchors this film. There are few actors in the world that can bring their full persona and weight to a performance and still disappear in a role so completely. Once Matt was cast, I felt like I clearly understood Bill Baker and the profound journey, for all its complexities and ambiguities, that he was about to take. This film just would not work without him.
Stillwater is a film about human nature, what dictates the decisions we make, and how morality can be corrupted by one’s past, society, and love of family. It speaks to what we perceive to be our moral imperative. It’s a story of liberation that addresses the shackles of shame and guilt that keep us rooted to one place. It’s a film that addresses our longing to be loved and needed. And it’s a film that I was not ready to make until right now.
About the Author
Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist with a focus on travel, lifestyle, entertainment and hospitality. He has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He enjoys discovering delicious eats, tasting spirited treats, and being mesmerized by musical beats.