Director Tom McCarthy’s film is a slower, subtler version of the “vigilante-let-down-by-the-system-so-has-to-go-it-alone” genre, and it’s this considered approach that makes the piece both watchable and heartbreaking. Bill Baker (Matt Damon) is a flawed hero, with neither super-strength nor driving passion to propel him forwards. He’s just a guy in a difficult situation, trying his best to put things right. And, a lot of the time, failing.
Bill’s daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin) is in prison in Marseilles. She’s been found guilty of murdering her girlfriend, fellow uni-student Lina, and has already been incarcerated for five years. Back in Oklahoma, Bill takes on all the casual labouring work he can find, and spends the proceeds making regular visits to France. He hasn’t always been the best dad – he has a history of drug and alcohol abuse – but he’s determined to be there for Alli now.
When the film opens, this is already routine. Bill’s prison visiting card is half-full of stamps; the staff at his hotel in Marseilles know him. This is just the way things are. But then Alli gives him a letter for her lawyer: a key witness, missing from her trial, has been heard bragging about getting away with murder, and Alli wants him found. But the lawyer sorrowfully dismisses her claim: it’s hearsay; it’s too late. So Bill is left with little choice but to investigate alone…
Well, not quite alone. He doesn’t speak French, so he needs an interpreter. He only has a few acquaintances in France, but Virginie (Camille Cottin), an erstwhile fellow hotel guest, seems friendly, and she owes him a favour for looking after her daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). The trouble is, she was only at the hotel for a couple of nights, while repairs were being done on her apartment, so first he has to track her down… Luckily for Bill, the hotel staff aren’t exactly big on protecting their guests’ privacy, and anyway, Virginie doesn’t mind. She collects causes and campaigns, and she’s only too pleased to help. In fact, she offers him a room. He babysits and, well, fixes things (taps, toilets, sockets), because that’s what he does, while she reads everything she can and talks to potential witnesses.
If this all sounds familiar, don’t be fooled: McCarthy shies away from the tried-and-tested path. Bill and Virginie face real obstacles, and there isn’t always a way around them. Dogged determination doesn’t always win the day, and anyway, the last thing Alli wants is for Bill to get involved…
It’s great to see Cottin in a big-screen role. Obviously, she has an illustrious career behind her, but we’ve only recently become aware of her, via the rather marvellous TV series, Call My Agent (Netflix). She has a real presence here, inhabiting her character completely, and oozing charisma. But she’s not the only one: Siauvaud is a delight, and, of course, Breslin and Damon both have real acting chops too. Damon’s depiction of the monosyllabic, fish-out-of-water American is wonderfully understated: he’s inarticulate, humble, quietly resolved – a million miles away from the brash confidence of a typical ‘hero.’
This is a very realistic film, and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi shows us a realistic vision of Marseilles too. We see the gorgeous white cliffs and blue waters of the Mediterranean; the romantic rooftop view from Virginie’s apartment; the glorious tumble of shuttered Provençal streets. But we also see the seamier districts – the seedy bars and no-go areas – and they’re properly integrated: we are shown the whole city, in all its vibrant contradictions.
There are echoes here of Amanda Knox’s story, but only echoes. Stillwater draws on that narrative, but it’s very much its own tale – of love and redemption and imperfect endings.