Life is brutal.
I’ll let Amanda Knox speak on the topic of consent where it comes to using another person’s trauma to sell your art and the refusal to realize how doing so inevitably destroys the hard work that person put in to fight for truth in the face of a ubiquitous media-fueled lie. Just know that my needing to mention it is all director Tom McCarthy‘s fault. He’s the one who brought up that Knox’s imprisonment for a crime she didn’t commit was the springboard for Stillwater. He’s the one who admitted he could make it more dramatic by ignoring the facts she’s struggled to bring into the light above the more salacious conjecture viewers were sold. He’s the one who flippantly connected her innocent bystander to his ambiguous stand-in.
McCarthy, his co-writers (Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noé Debré), and his cast could have made a concerted effort to distance themselves from the comparison instead. And, frankly, they should have since that comparison is the least compelling aspect of their film. Because let’s face it: this isn’t Allison Baker’s (Abigail Breslin) story turned into a courtroom drama. It’s not the deceased’s story either considering McCarthy didn’t even bother to cast anyone due to his not using flashbacks. They’re merely pawns—the catalysts to get a roughneck, deadbeat dad (Matt Damon‘s Bill Baker) to take stock of his failings and find redemption. This is about a boorish American getting a second chance in a foreign country to do all the things he never did with Allison.
And it’s a good film when focusing on that too since intent doesn’t stop a screw-up from being a screw-up. Bill is an unapologetic philistine who can barely be trusted to pass a letter he can’t read (his daughter has been in a French jail for supposedly killing her lover the past five years and he hasn’t even picked up an English-to-French dictionary despite visiting whenever he can) to his daughter’s lawyer let alone go rogue in a dangerous part of town by loudly shouting demands that should have gotten him killed. That he can find remorse for his actions—at a time when Allison doesn’t even want to see him—by building a new life in Europe shouldn’t be possible. That it’s authentically drawn is a miracle.
The middle third of Stillwater is fantastic. Bill’s drive to save Allison might be ignited by hurt pride, but that’s exactly what motivates guys like him. It also humbling him enough to befriend a local (Camille Cottin‘s Virginie) and take a shine to her daughter (Lilou Siauvaud‘s Maya) is where the emotional heavy lifting arrives because he’s embracing that which he never could as a violent drunk, absentee husband. This rebirth may even be what’s needed to mend the broken bridge with Allison just as she’s learning to deal with the anger and shame she’s felt as a result of her sentence. The door for a bevy of life lessons via a hard-earned happily ever after in dire straits was open until McCarthy remembered his quest for justice.
I get the impulse. He started this thing with an off-the-books hunt for a killer that ultimately bears fruit despite also ending in a potential dead-end. Taken at face value, the journey culminates in an incomplete conclusion demanding answers. Taken in context with what follows (Bill’s heartfelt and vulnerable life with Virginie and Maya), however, it’s merely a prologue. McCarthy had his out to reject the Knox comparisons outright by keeping Allison in jail and using the ramifications of doing so to find meaning. Maybe it wouldn’t have been “fair,” but it would have been compelling. To throw that away in a bid to tie a bow after what proves an absurdly silly third act is borderline embarrassing because it shows an inability to let the story lead.
All that great work is gone in an instant. All that human complexity (Bill suddenly being a father figure to two people, the will-they-won’t-they chemistry with Virginie, and his relinquishment of the me-first attitude that ruined his life and helps Europeans despise Americans) is gone. What’s left is a hollow suspense thriller full of secrets and lies. Old habits resurface, new truths are revealed to muddy the waters of the case further, and McCarthy seems intent on glorifying the America First creed that says suffering is better than joy if that suffering is in service of being stubbornly loyal to a shitty existence simply because it’s “yours.” I think I got whiplash from how fast things tumble from richly layered emotions to “I’m right, screw you” buckshot spray.
And for what? Bittersweet memories of love lost? No way. Not when every love that gets lost is a direct result of the losers’ actions. Bill could have cared more for the family he squandered. Allison could have let cooler heads prevail when confronted with what happens in her relationship. And Bill could have stopped himself from throwing a second family away if he would have only used his words instead of his fists. Everything bad that happens in this film could have been fixed if Oklahomans were ever taught how to express their feelings (and perhaps go to therapy). McCarthy even flirts with this truth by having Bill acknowledge how his deception is affecting Maya (she gets into a fight at school) despite never following through.
So much of what’s put on-screen is similarly one step away from greatness before losing its balance and falling backwards towards disappointment. Production value is high, the acting is fantastic across the board (I think both Damon and Cottin are excelling at a level you might not realize at first glance), and that second act is the perfect pivot from a first act constructed to expose its characters’ faults by believably confronting them with open hearts. It’s why I can admit to having soured so completely by the time the credits rolled and still recommend it as being worth a look. Maybe you can pretend it ends the moment the Olympique de Marseille soccer team scores a goal. Let happiness reign against all odds and skip the rest.
 Matt Damon (left) stars as “Bill” and Lilou Siauvaud (right) stars as “Maya” in director Tom McCarthy’s STILLWATER, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jessica Forde / Focus Features
 Abigail Breslin (left) stars as “Allison” and Matt Damon (right) stars as “Bill” in director Tom McCarthy’s STILLWATER, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jessica Forde / Focus Features
 Camille Cottin (left) stars as “Virginie” and Matt Damon (right) stars as “Bill” in director Tom McCarthy’s STILLWATER, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jessica Forde / Focus Features