Stillwater review: Matt Damon stars in slow-burn thriller

Published By Alexandra Heilbron on Jul 28, 2021

Stillwater opens in theaters this Friday.

Stillwater is a crime/drama thriller that seems to move slowly, but as you take everything in, it becomes clear that the setup is what makes this film so exceptional.

Matt Damon plays Bill Baker, a manual laborer who does odd jobs since he lost his position on an oil rig. He lives in Oklahoma, but his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) is in prison in Marseille, serving time for the murder of her roommate.

Bill decides to go to France to visit her. Their relationship is distant, partly due to him having been gone for long periods of time while working, but when she asks him to deliver a letter to her lawyer, he’s more than happy to do so. The letter provides information that there may be new evidence, but Allison also writes that she doesn’t want her father involved, saying she can’t trust him, and that “he’s not capable.” Because the letter only offers a secondhand account of what may have happened the night Allison’s roommate was murdered, the lawyer refuses to take action.

Dismayed by the lawyer's reaction, Bill reads the letter and decides to remain in Marseille long enough to dig into the case himself. He feels guilt at not having been there for his little girl while she was growing up, and he also feels responsible that she felt the need to travel so far away from Oklahoma to attend college. She claims to be innocent of the crime, and that’s good enough for him.

When he helps Maya, a little girl who’s locked out of her hotel room in the same building where he’s renting a room, her single mother Virginie later comes to thank him. Learning of his situation, she offers to help Bill, who’s out of his depth when it comes to speaking French, not to mention the cultural barriers he faces. She translates when he goes to speak to people who may know something about what happened the night of the murder.

If you’ve heard of the true-life story of Amanda Knox, an American who was studying in Italy when she was convicted of murdering her roommate, you’ll see similarities here. But apart from that initial setup, the script by Thomas Bidegain, Marcus Hinchey and Noé Debré is completely original. And although you may have seen action movies with a similar premise, this is a far different storyline. The script goes places you will not see coming and there are surprises around every turn.

As Allison, Abigail Breslin doesn’t evoke much sympathy from the audience. Perhaps the time she spent in jail has hardened her, but she’s not a likeable character. She certainly doesn’t seem to appreciate what Bill is doing for her and that makes it difficult for the audience to root for her.

For his part, Matt Damon turns in a role that’s different from anything he’s played before. A smoker whose main diet is fast food while at home in America, Bill is rough around the edges when he arrives in France, but he’s a quiet, humble man who says grace before every meal. He's a kind person who struggles between doing the right thing – and the need to prove himself to Allison by getting her out of prison at all costs.

Stillwater is a slow-burn thriller that takes time to establish relationships and situations. There are plot developments that will have you biting your nails, wondering if things are about to go really wrong – but there are also heartwarming bits that are just enjoyable to watch. The combination makes for a film that will keep you entertained at every moment, with enough suspense to leave you desperate to find out what’s going to happen. ~Alexandra Heilbron

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Stillwater opens nationwide in theaters on Friday, July 30, 2021.

Matt Damon in Stillwater. Jessica Forde/Focus Features

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