Damon drama ‘Stillwater’ derails in the third act

The movie, which takes troubling inspiration from real-life events, can’t decide what it wants to be

Brad Keefe
"Stillwater"

I generally want to celebrate original stories written for the screen in a movie industry dominated by sequels, adaptations and reboots.

Hollywood is risk-averse, and it’s safer to make a movie with a built-in audience, whether that’s another superhero franchise or even just a film adaptation of a popular novel. But the freedom of an original screenplay lets filmmakers create the right structure and rhythm for the film experience.

Well, sometimes I should be careful what I wish for.

“Stillwater” has a talented director and star, and while it does take some (problematic) inspiration from a real event, it’s free to take the story anywhere.

The problems arrive in where that story goes and with a film that can’t seem to decide what it wants to be.

We meet Bill Baker (Matt Damon) doing daywork cleaning debris in the wake of an Oklahoma tornado. Bill is a stoic, working-class roughneck between jobs in the oil fields. Once Bill’s working-class bonafides have been established, he hops on a plane to Marseilles, France. It feels like a fish out of water, but soon we learn the reason for his travels.

Bill is visiting his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), who is serving a sentence in Marseilles for murder. Bill is there both to support her and prove her innocence.

While staying in a modest hotel, Bill meets and befriends his neighbor, Virginie (Camille Cottin), and her young daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). A potential new break in his daughter’s case has Bill extending his stay indefinitely as he also becomes more involved in the lives of Virginie and Maya.

Damon is solid in the lead, though his Bill is holding back a lot of emotion and always choosing his words carefully.

Writer-director Tom McCarthy has made some amazing movies since his debut with “The Station Agent,” most recently the Oscar-winning “Spotlight.” (His biggest critical misfire was the Adam Sandler vehicle “The Cobbler,” so not every one is a winner.) “Stillwater” falls on the lower end of his spectrum, a disappointment given his talents.

While an original story, the movie did lift inspiration from the story of Amanda Knox, the American student who was imprisoned and eventually acquitted of murder in Italy. Knox has blasted the film for distorting her story and profiting from it.

So it was an odd move to have that starting point but then completely fictionalize and change it. The biggest misstep is a shift of tones, with the movie playing as a family drama, an occasional thriller and a sometimes sweet character study.

“Stilwater” is so uneven that it feels like several different movies at once, the most interesting one being the second act. Here, Bill moves in with Virginie and Maya, his purely platonic friendship with Maya sweetly calling back to his earlier failures as a father.

But, for me, the unexpected and sometimes unwelcome turns of the third act derailed what could have been a solid film.

“Stilwater”

Now playing in theaters

2 stars out of 5