One of the year’s best films can’t seem to find its audience.
With an Oscar winner at the helm and box office draw Matt Damon delivering one of the finest performances of his career, Stillwater should have been a no-doubt buzzworthy feature that drove viewers to the theater for what was marketed as a high-stakes thriller.
And yet, director/co-writer Tom McCarthy’s latest film and his major studio follow-up to Best Picture winner Spotlight has gone considerably under the radar in spite of critical acclaim and raucous support at its debut during this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Part of the issue is tone.
The film sees Damon portray an Oklahoma roughneck travel to Marseilles visiting his daughter in hopes of securing her freedom five years after she was imprisoned for the death of her roommate. Marketing and trailers project Stillwater as an intense thriller in the vein of the Taken franchise, though it’s considerably more restrained and somewhat melodramatic over the course of 140 minutes.
Coproduced by American and French studios, there’s a considerable blending of American intensity with moderate European filmmaking that gives Stillwater a brooding tone which could dissuade casual moviegoers. But the deliberate pace is actually one of the strongest elements of the film, which allows McCarthy’s introspective script to shine and drive the narrative based on character rather than simple plot.
Damon delivers an intensely introspective performance as Bill, a man seemingly wandering his way through life with little purpose or perspective until the events of the film grow to completely reshape him as a father, and perhaps more importantly, as a man.
There are moments of rage that will evoke his work in the Jason Bourne franchise, and audiences longing for the action thriller they believe they were promised by the trailer will long for more.
But it’s in the reflective work that Damon puts Bill through where his performance truly shines.
Over the course of the film Bill connects with a mother and her young daughter, becoming somewhat of a surrogate father as audiences see Damon slowly soften as if he were seeking amends for past sins in a pseudo do-over penance.
The relationship Damon is able to create with first-time actress Lilou Siauvaud as Maya develops naturally with the pair building bridges across generational and emotional differences in spite of language barriers. Moments where the pair begin to teach each other English and French are quite charming and often provide the slightest sense of levity to break up the heavier drama that prevails throughout.
Abigail Breslin is solid as Bill’s daughter, though the screenplay and the larger feature as a whole keep Allison at a distance from audiences, muddying the waters to accentuate the central mystery and maintaining the focus on Bill himself.
Camille Cottin is excellent as Maya’s mother Virginie, operating both as a narrative link to drive the story forward translating for Bill and the audience and as a beacon for Bill to find himself in this foreign world culture that he doesn’t understand as a blue collar American.
Cinematography from Masanobu Takayanagi is largely handheld and natural, allowing the city of Marseilles to fill the background with its unique beauty and plurality as a city of elite and lower class. McCarthy and Takayanagi do a wonderful job of using the visual to help create the world of the film without becoming a distraction from the character work.
Focus Features seems to have moved Stillwater off its Academy Awards marketing campaign, pushing the film into premium video on demand while it’s still screening theatrically. Unfortunately, Damon’s chances of earning a Best Actor nod seem unlikely as comments he made during the press tour for the film have moved him almost certainly out of the running.
By the time all is said and done, Stillwater could very well top a list of 2021 films that no one is talking about despite being among the most original and captivating.
Damon’s performance is beyond reproach and the considerable talent around him both on screen and off make Stillwater a film audiences should seek out at home or on the big screen.