Stillwater

Harrowing story of love and redemption

Directed by Tom McCarthy
(USA, 2021)

Review by Iva Apostolova

Stillwater is listed as a crime/drama/thriller, which I find a little misleading as it is mostly a classical drama telling yet another harrowing story of love and redemption. It stars Matt Damon, who needs no introduction, and Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine and My Sister’s Keeper) on the American side and Camille Cottin (known to North American audiences from her guest appearance in Season 3 of Killing Eve) on the French side. Stillwater is one of those unassuming at-first-glance movies that once seen cannot be easily forgotten. It has this raw quality that reaches straight for the heartstrings.

There aren’t a lot of wide shots in the movie. The actors, stripped of makeup and fancy clothes, are presented to us bathed in the harsh sunlight of Southern France, with all their wounds exposed for the world to see. It is, perhaps, this unusual setting of an American roughneck (Matt Damon) from Oklahoma, who finds himself in the middle of Marseille because his daughter (Abigail Breslin) is in jail for murder, that took my breath away and glued me to the screen for the next two hours. Damon’s transformation as the heavy-set, former alcohol- and drug-addicted, jobless oil worker from the Midwest is so complete that you may forget that this is one of Hollywood’s sweethearts. While the movie is mostly about a father-daughter relationship that is complicated by a crime and strained to a breaking point, it is also a story of an impossible, fragile, vulnerable but more real-than-anything love between an American roughneck and a French theatre actress and her open-hearted, brave, eight-year-old daughter, played by the fantastic Lilou Siauvaud. It is this unusual bond between the little girl, who does not speak a word of English, and Damon’s character, who does not speak a word of French, that makes you feel that despite the torments of a guilty conscience, the horrors of a crime and the despair of not being able to fix the past, there is still hope for redemption.

Against the backdrop of the deeply caring relationship blossoming between Damon’s and Siauvaud’s characters, the movie makes a subtle but assertive social commentary on the devastating effects of poverty on both sides of the Atlantic. Damon’s character comes from the jobless, poverty-stricken Rust Belt in the U.S. and finds himself in no time at all in the roughest part of Marseille – one of the “projects” where most of the North African population of Marseille lives, plagued by the same evil, left to cope with it on its own. It is worth mentioning that this is the same “wrong side of the tracks” part of Marseille where the award-winning, low-budget Shéhérazade (2018) takes place. The two movies share something else as well – the non-pro actor Idir Azougli, who made his debut as the drug-dealing gang-member in Shéhérazade, has a small but central role in Stillwater. His fast-paced, nervous, profanity-filled Maghrebi French talk brings to the story a level of authenticity that no director would pass up on.

Running time: 2 hours and 19 minutes
Rated: 14A
Available in select theatres since July 2021

Iva Apostolova is a professor of philosophy at Dominican University College.

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