PLOT An American man fights to release his daughter from prison in France.
CAST Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, Camille Cottin
RATED R (violence, adult themes)
WHERE In theaters
BOTTOM LINE Strong performances bolster a somewhat static crime drama.
Matt Damon is a working-class man whose college-age daughter is convicted of murder in France in "Stillwater," the new film from Oscar-winning writer-director Tom McCarthy (Spotlight"). Clearly informed by the case of American exchange student Amanda Knox, who was convicted and then acquitted of killing her roommate in Italy, "Stillwater" tries to fashion that material into the story of one man’s desperate search for the truth. It doesn’t quite work, but Damon’s rock-solid performance and a tantalizing mystery — did she or didn’t she? — might be enough to pull you through to the end.
Damon’s Bill Baker is an unemployed oil-rig worker in Stillwater, Oklahoma, now making ends meet by demolishing houses. With largesse from a relative, he flies regularly to Marseille, where Allison (a riveting Abigail Breslin) sits bitterly in prison for the murder of her female lover. Father and daughter aren’t close — Bill was a drinker during her youth — but Allison needs every ally she can get. When she reveals a new clue about a young lowlife, Akim (Idir Azougli), Bill takes it upon himself to find him.
Don’t expect this quiet American to kick butt and take names. Written by McCarthy and Marcus Hinchey with two French collaborators, "Stillwater" steadily develops into an understated drama as Bill forms an unlikely second family with an artsy French actor, Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her little girl, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). Though these scenes can be tender, they stretch on for too long and distract from Bill’s once-urgent mission. We’re far more interested in Allison, whose unpredictable personality — now helpless, now hostile — keeps us on our toes.
Marseille makes a picturesque backdrop (the film was shot on location) but also a slightly odd one for what’s supposed to be a thriller; I don’t usually think of murder and menace when I think of the French, though their servers can certainly look daggers. Indeed, Bill takes his lumps as an American: Virginie’s friends either dismiss him as a gun-toting Trumpist (they’re only half-right) or ogle him as some kind of exotic discovery. Bill’s dialogue doesn’t consist of much beyond "Yes, ma’am" and "No, ma’am," but Damon deserves credit for imbuing the character with an appealing inner confidence. Cultural elites be damned — Bill’s idea of local cuisine remains the nearest Subway.
"Stillwater" kicks into gear with a couple of shockingly dark turns in the third act, but there are major questions left unanswered and — unless I missed something — a plot hole as wide as the Chunnel. Mostly the film is guilty of stinting on action and suspense, which makes "Stillwater" a little too aptly titled.