Tom McCarthy who gave us the award-winning “Spotlight,” dips back into the pool of reality as he loosely bases “Stillwater,” starring Matt Damon, on a top news story from 2007. Amanda Knox was accused of murdering her roommate, convicted and sentenced to jail, but then acquitted after nearly 5 years. McCarthy and his co-writers use her story as the foundation for the film, changing slight details and adding their own subplots, characters, and ultimately their own narrative. These blurred lines between reality and fiction become a story in and of itself; frustrating at times, entertaining at others.
“Stillwater” introduces us to Bill Baker (Matt Damon), a man without means, struggling with consistent employment but determined and hardworking. He travels abroad to visit his incarcerated daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) each month, assisted financially by his aging mother. Residing in a French prison, Allison desperately pleads with her father to deliver a letter to her attorney containing information which she feels will lead to her exoneration. Bill will do anything to help his daughter, the least of which is delivering a letter, but her attorney doesn’t deliver the news he was hoping for. And hope is at the core of Allison’s survival and the story’s heart.
Bill’s motive to protect and free his daughter are his goals, but the means by which he completes them aren’t always honest and true. This is the slippery slope upon which he slides, gaining speed like an avalanche crashing down a mountain. Again, as any parent would do, he drops his own life and moves to France to work on his daughter’s case; something the authorities will not do as it appears to be a hopeless endeavor. Following clues, Bill digs deeper into finding the one person who may be able to prove his daughter’s innocence, but at what cost?
Essentially, this is Bill’s story as we learn more about his background filled with errors in life. Living in a backward poverty-stricken town of Stillwater, his success or lack thereof seems predetermined. Could his fate be changed thanks to the kindness of one woman, Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). As the months drag on for Allison who is under the impression that her lawyers are working steadily on her case, Bill finds a glimmer of happiness in life and his newly formed family. But he can’t escape his mindset or his daughter’s situation which haunts and impacts his every day and decision.
Damon’s reserved yet evocative portrayal of Bill is the key to the film as we watch his character suffer from the onslaught of life itself exacerbated by his widely swinging pendulum of life-altering decisions. There’s a familiarity to how Damon depicts Bill which creates a relatability to him and most importantly, a connection. The disconnect between the characters of Allison and Bill, aptly portrayed, allows us to see a complete background picture of them without having to display it in narrative form. Breslin gives us a well-rounded Allison, filled with flaws as she finds she must quickly grow up in this oppressive and hostile environment. Equally engaging are Cottin and the adorable Siauvaud who both augment Damon’s performance with their natural chemistry. Cottin’s supporting role requires strength, intelligence, and compassion which effortlessly creates Virginie. And Siauvaud steals each and every scene without even trying. Never is she or her scenes over-the-top, but always grounded in reality. She and Damon are an absolute delight together which provides us a hope for their characters’ futures.
While the similarities between the real life Amanda Knox and our fictitious Allison cannot be argued, the film delves into cultural differences as well as American ideals and the realities of escaping pervasive poverty in the States. If you can separate the real story from the film, it is a gripping one filled with great performances, underlying themes depicting life’s struggles, and the lengths a parent will go to in order to help their child, even when the blinders of love are gradually lifted. Unfortunately, even though “Stillwater is its own story in its own right, it played it safe, borrowing too many facts from the Amanda Knox story.