Stillwater, the 2021 film with Matt Damon cosplaying as an Oklahoman (more on that in a moment), is not exactly the film I was expecting. From the general outline — Damon plays Bill Baker, whose daughter, Allison (played by Abigail Breslin, who I thought looked familiar; she’s the little girl in 2002’s Signs!), has been apparently falsely arrested for the murder of her lover, Lina, in Marseille, a city in France — sounded like a fun “whodunit.” What’s the secret of Stillwater? Did she really do it or not?
And to be sure, the film arrives at a conclusion to that question, but I didn’t realize the 140-minute runtime would primarily concern Bill Baker bunking up, and eventually falling in love with, Virginie (played by Carmille Cottin) and her daughter, Maya (played by Lilou Siauvaud). The drama mostly centers around those three, with Allison’s issues on the peripheral. I will say, that was done well, with director Tom McCarthy reminding us of it with distant shots of the place where the real killer lives.
Bill ends up moving to Marseille to stay close to his daughter. All the while, he’s trying to assimilate to a culture, language, legal system and country that is quite literally foreign to him. What’s interesting is, the film starts off five years after Allison was arrested and sentenced for the murder. And we see that Bill has been visiting her frequently. You would think in the course of those five years, he would have learned French!
Nonetheless, my point about Damon cosplaying, is that it really is hilarious how easy it is to do a genuine get-up of a quintessential rough American: goatee, hat, sunglasses, flannel (tucked into jeans, of course), truck, an accent, and the overly polite “yes, ma’am, no, sir.” Add in a blue collar job, with a drinking problem, poor parenting and there ya go.
Thing is, that’s the rub. Bill seems nice at first because he’s doing those niceties, but he’s kind of a jerk to Virginie! They meet by happenstance when she’s staying in the adjacent hotel room, and agrees to help him translate one of Allison’s letter. Then she helps him communicate with a French-speaking college student. Then she goes with him to speak to the student in-person. And then she goes with him yet again to speak to a bar owner to try to identify the supposed real killer. He would have gotten nowhere, if not for her.
But Bill comes across as unappreciative! He says something about how nobody is helping him, even though she’s going more than out of her way to get involved and help! After the bar owner situation, where the bar owner is a racist POS, who wants to finger any Arab for the crime, Bill is again a jerk and Virginie storms off.
After Bill gets beaten up by a gang of men when he goes looking for the real killer, Virginie is the person the hospital calls because it’s the only person Bill knows. We never return to why she stormed off or Bill being a jerk. They’re just … on good terms again, apparently. I didn’t like that.
But daughter like father, Allison is a dang jerk, too! So, Bill hands the letter Allison wrote to the prosecutor about how there’s someone else out there, who if we can only get his DNA, we can show he’s the real killer, thus freeing Allison. The prosecutor doesn’t want to re-open the case. Instead of telling her that, Bill continues investigating it himself, culminating in his butt-whooping.
When he goes back to the jail, his face still a swollen, cut-up mess, Allison explodes on him, telling him she never wants to see him again and that’s he messed up (although she was more colorful about it) yet again. Prior context is that Bill wasn’t in her life much, being a drunkard and working on oil rigs; then Allison’s mother committed the act of suicide and Bill lost all of the mother’s belongings. This outrage directed at Bill is particularly unsettling and unfair when we learn what we do later (more on that in a moment).
We jump four months ahead and that’s when Bill has permanently moved to Marseille and is bunking with Virginie and Maya. Eventually, the relationship with Virginie progresses to a romantic one, which I wasn’t crazy about. I kinda liked her keeping her romantic distance from him and instead, it just being an unlikely friendship of a French woman and her kid with an American from Oklahoma.
Siauvaud is the real star of the film. Damon is great. Cottin is great. But Siauvaud is so spunky and delightful throughout the film, as she falls for this American dad figure. The way she said “Bill” was so cute.
Eventually, at a soccer game, Bill by chance sees the real killer and kidnaps him, keeping him in the basement of the apartment complex. A private detective Bill was using essentially rats him out to the police. Still, the police never find the kidnapped killer because Virginie frees him from the basement just in time. But she’s rightly furious with Bill and kicks him out.
That private detective, despite ratting Bill out, gives the DNA of the killer to the proper authorities and exonerates Allison.
They both go home, but Bill knows that something is amiss. The killer knew the Oklahoma town of Stillwater where they are from because of Allison’s necklace of the same name. Bill confronts her about it and it turns out that Allison carried out a hit on Lina because Lina was cheating on her. She makes it seem like she only wanted the killer to scare Lina out of the apartment, but he killed her. “I didn’t want her to die. I loved her,” she says, crying.
She asks Bill, “What’s wrong with us?” because she thinks they both have the same “we mess everything up” gene. They both then relish in the nihilistic life mantra of “life is brutal.”
Even though Allison is actually guilty, although she didn’t commit the murder herself, and even though she was exonerated, she still did serve more than five years in a prison! So, it’s not like she didn’t pay for her sins, as it were.
At the end, while sitting on Bill’s porch, Allison says nothing has changed; it all looks the same. Bill disagrees, saying everything looks different now. I think that’s alluding to the fact that he finally found his footing as a father, as a man and as a lover in France, but messed it up and now nothing back home looks the same anymore.
Overall, I would have shaved off a good 25 minutes from the film, as it was quite long, and I would have made the adjustments to the Bill/Virginie relationship I mentioned, but I did quite enjoy this drama. I thought everyone acted superbly and genuinely, and that the “whodunit,” even if often peripheral, was enough to keep my engagement.
And it was just a delight to watch the blossoming Bill/Maya friendship and love.
Addendum: I didn’t realize that McCarthy based the film, apparently, on Amanda Knox. I don’t actually know that much about Knox, but I think this thread is well-worth reading, particularly given that Allison in the film was implicated in the murder, and Knox, in real life, was 100 percent exonerated of any wrongdoing: