Bill Baker (Matt Damon) would probably never have left Oklahoma and the United States. He earns his meager income as a skilled drill worker in the oil fields. With a baseball cap, goatee and his broad cross, he looks like the prototype of a down-to-earth redneck. But then we see how he packs his bags with a jet setter routine and boards a plane to Marseille.
“Welcome back, Mr. Baker,” says the man at the reception of the local Best Western Hotel. Bill has traveled to the French port city again to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), who was sentenced to nine years in prison for the murder of her lover. Father and daughter don’t exactly have a warm relationship. Communication during the visits is rather slow. Allison believes he has found a new lead to the real culprit and hopes that the case will be reopened. But the lawyer waves it away and so Bill begins to look for the alleged murderer himself. An American in Marseille who wants to cheat his daughter out of the clutches of a foreign judiciary – that sounds like an action film with Liam Neeson in “Taken” format.
Matt Damon would also fit into the picture here with relevant Jason Bourne experience. But director and co-screenwriter Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”) is not interested in an American hero painting. The criminalistic part of the plot in “Stillwater” only serves as a narrative framework for a detailed character study. The tension here lies less in a sophisticated plot structure than in the successive discovery of a personality and its possibilities for change. Bill’s search for the culprit in the banlieue ends in an investigative disaster and Allison then turns away from him. But Bill stays in Marseille, moves in with the actress Virginie (Camille Cottin), whose little daughter Maya (outstanding: Lilou Siauvaud) he begins to lovingly care for. Virginie’s artist friends, who view the proletarian American with a certain ethnographic interest, want to know whether he owns a pistol or whether he voted for Trump. He lived in Marseille for four years with his patchwork surrogate family when he accidentally discovered the face of the alleged perpetrator again in the crowd and risked his new luck to find it. Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”) was only loosely inspired by the case of Amanda Knox, who was falsely convicted of murder in Italy in 2009 and was only released after four years in prison. Knox has protested against the fact that the film tarnishes their story. The sensitivity is understandable, but leads past the film, which at best uses the case vaguely as a stepping stone to a completely different story. Because this is not about the dramatic consequences of a miscarriage of justice. Rather, McCarthy focuses on a fictional, damaged father-daughter relationship and stays away from all speculative effects. Matt Damon’s wonderfully minimalist performance alone ensures that. He plays this iceberg of a man whose qualities are hidden far below the surface, with a sensitive stoicism that becomes more permeable with every minute of the film, without betraying the character of catharsis longings.
USA 2021, directed by Tom McCarthy 139 minutes, free for ages 12 and up