I went along to see writer/director Tom McCarthy talk about an early screening of his Oscar-winner Spotlight, and he pulled a crowd-pleasing move by bringing actors on stage so we could compare them with the real-life journalists they played; it was a novelty to see Stanley Tucci line up alongside the same person he played in the movie. But not everyone is so pleased to be depicted in a fictional film, and Amanda Knox is reported to have taken exception to his depiction of her in his follow-up movie Stillwater.
Stillwater is over 140 minutes long, and yet the film’s scope is deliberately small. Matt Damon plays Bill Baker, an oil-driller from Oklahoma, whom we see on a visit to Marseilles, France. Bill seems a little insular for Eurotrips, but the mystery is solved when we discover that he’s visiting his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), who is serving a nine-year prison sentence. With authorities uninterested re-opening such a high-profile case, and private detectives proving too expensive, Baker starts his own investigation that quickly bogs down. Baker has his own inner demons, but his interactions with a helpful actress Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her daughter Maya offer him some kind of redemption before a chance encounter gives Baker the chance to re-open the case.
Seeing Jason Bourne not do his thing maybe isn’t the best enticement to audiences during a pandemic, but Damon provides a striking variation of his signature role here. Baker can’t run, fight or detect much, but he’s a walking target for thugs, his linguistic skills are minimal, and he suffers such indignities has having to watch a local theatre production; the way Damon pronounces the-a-tre with three syllables feels right for Baker. Breslin and Cottin both provide terrific support, and all the minor characters sing; Stillwater’s best suit is the location filming, which exposes many facets of the coastal city in atmospheric detail.
And saving the spoiler alert for the end; Stillwater builds to a final twist that reveals that Allison is, despite Baker’s lugubrious attempts to prove her innocent, guilty as sin. It’s this that Knox objects to, and she’s got a point; switching the locale from Italy to France doesn’t do enough to obscure that Stillwater trades on the notoriety of a well-known criminal case. The Knox case was one in which the media’s influence demonised her and possibly affected the conviction, and McCarthy might have done better to fabricate more details. But having said that, McCarthy makes a bigger political point here; good-hearted, God-fearing, hard-working Americans have been ill-advised of late, and the scales eventually fall from Baker’s eyes that he’s been conned. Damon gives a big, empathetic performance here, and as long as the audiences understand that this story is a fiction, Stillwater is refreshingly on-the-money when it comes to how Trump’s fake news era has rotted our morality worldwide.