Stillwater is the story of an Oklahoma roughneck named Bill Baker, played by Matt Damon, who travels to Marseille, France to visit his daughter Allison, played by Abigail Breslin, in prison after spending four years behind bars for the apparent murder of her roommate and ex-girlfriend.
After catching wind of some evidence that could possibly set his daughter free, Bill starts his own investigation into the case and does whatever he deems necessary to get his daughter free and return back home to Stillwater.
Bill befriends an French actor who is also single mother, Virginie played by Camille Cottin, and her young daughter Maya and eventually moves in as he sets up a second life, all while regularly visiting his daughter to whom he’d grown distant to due her mother’s suicide and Bill’s past substance abuse issues. Bill begins to function as an ersatz-family with the two, teaching Maya the names of tools while she teaches him French and slowly wooing Virginie with his hardened good looks and Midwest manners all while picking up construction jobs in Marseille so he can afford to stay near Allison and continue to unravel the case.
Damon, as always, is great. He doesn’t play up the redneck, down-home folksiness too much to the point where it’s a distraction but he’s able to capture the emotional struggle of the situation and a character conflicted and burdened with the mistakes of the past. Breslin is also incredibly strong but it’s perhaps Cottin who drew my attention the most as Bill’s guide through France and a sort of settling, even-keel force in his life. The chemistry between Damon and Cottin grows throughout the movie into something you really get invested in.
As much as I enjoyed both the twistyness of the plot and the very real, lived-in character portrayals that we get out of our leads, we must address the Amanda Knox-sized elephant in the room.
Stillwater is not-so-loosely based on Knox who, back in 2007, was convicted of murdering her roommate in Italy and, at 20 year old, spent four years in an Italian jail. Knox was vilified in the Italian press and was the victim of an attempted railroading by a corrupt Italian justice system. She was eventually acquitted and returned to the United States in 2011. In 2015, Italian courts definitively exonerated Knox leaving little to no doubt in anyone’s mind that she was guilty of any wrongdoing.
However, Stillwater does not provide such clean-cut answers for Allison Baker.
I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say here that, eventually, both the Baker’s make it back to Stillwater (it’s not the destination, it’s the journey) but while Baker was officially exonerated by the French courts as Knox was in the Italian courts, we learn that Baker, perhaps, shares some blame in the death of her ex-girlfriend.
Even something as loosely adapted as Stillwater still owes some kind of journalistic integrity to Knox’s real-life story as she is still very much alive and well, living in Seattle. It really puts the movie in a tricky area where the storytelling choices really do work well within the confines of the movie but the implications on the real life events that gave director and co-writer Tom McCarthy inspiration for the script are still troubling.
Knox has decried the movie stating in one interview, “by fictionalizing away my innocence, my total lack of involvement, by erasing the role of the authorities in my wrongful conviction, McCarthy reinforces an image of me as a guilty and untrustworthy person.”
Where do you draw the line? What kind of moral obligation do filmmakers have when dealing with biographic elements of movies, even if those elements are wrapped in a cocoon of fiction?
That’s honestly a question for someone smarter than me to unravel and digest. Stillwater fascinated me in more ways than one and I’m glad I saw it. But, as much as the performances thrilled me, days later I still find myself bothered by the seeming carelessness that the film handles Knox’s story.
If you can separate film from the context that it was created in, perhaps your enjoyment will be unbothered but for me, that just wasn’t the case.