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Stillwater- An Aggressively American Mess

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Tom McCarthy’s newest film Stillwater is loosely based on the infamous story of Amanda Knox, in this version, Allison Baker is accused of killing her girlfriend and as her father, Bill Baker, played by Matt Damon, visits her, he decides that he will personally work to prove her innocence. Directed by the same man who directed Best Picture winner Spotlight, Stillwater was something I was very much excited to see. After watching it though, I am baffled that this was made by the same man who made one of the most intriguing and well executed films of the past decade (Spotlight) as none of the talent he clearly has, is being used here.

The biggest issue with this film is the protagonist who is just unlikable. Matt Damon’s Bill is the epitome of an ignorant tourist, specifically American. He takes the phrase “fish out of water” to the nth degree, he is a fish who has purposefully left the water, knowing it will not be able to survive out of the water, and yet is annoyed that it can’t breathe and frustrated that the out-of-water isn’t the same as in it. He has been visiting France for years and hasn’t bothered to even learn the basics; someone says “bonjour” and he responds, in a thick southern American accent “hey”, and the few times he bothers to speak French, he speaks with an accent as bad as Brad Pitt in Inglorious Basterds (although this isn’t done for comedy) as he mutters “mersee”. At times, it felt like this film was satirising the typical American tourists that often get mocked by Europeans for their cultural ignorance. In one scene, a French university lecturer says that the reason the French press were so ruthless to Allison is because they were envious because she is American, and America is the “cultural elite” … in what universe is France, the home of the Louvre, a country that is the birthplace of cinema, with a rich and long history, envious of America’s culture? Things like this littered throughout made me think it was perhaps a satire, but everything else was pointing toward this trying to be a serious emotional film. Bill is not nice to the people around him, he is ignorant, selfish, entitled and we’re meant to empathise with him? He makes wildly inappropriate and unjustifiable decisions and yet this is the man with whom we spend the entire, lengthy runtime.

The next biggest issue is the screenplay. To say Tom McCarthy also co-wrote Spotlight, one of the most captivating, tight, and exciting screenplays in recent memory, this screenplay is disastrous. It seems totally unaware of what earth is like in 2021. At one point, the characters take screenshots from a public Instagram account to help them find somebody, and someone says they can’t take these photos to the police because “we stole these photos from Instagram” and people just accepted it. I was baffled by so many things like this, a random reference to “fake news”, bad boomer jokes about guns, I could go on forever. The screenplay also demands a mammoth runtime of 2 hours and 20 minutes, and you feel every second. This should’ve been under 2 hours or extended and turned into a mini-series. There is so much of Bill just standing around, walking around, driving around, while listening to his country music to remind us how American he is, it drags so slowly. But at other times it is rushed, the ending is rushed, Bill is given no time to react to some huge news he receives so we completely lose any momentum the plot was building because the climax is either rushed or non-existent because too much time is wasted on following Bill doing absolutely nothing of worth.

There isn’t really anything this film excels at; everything is adequate. It is thoroughly average, the cinematography is dull, the editing successfully strings the scenes they filmed and that’s about it, the direction is unremarkable, the writing is, as I’ve discussed, terrible at times but the few times it isn’t dreadful it’s merely competent. The performances are okay. Camille Cottin easily gives the best performance as Bill’s love interest; Matt Damon tries but it’s difficult to enjoy his performance because his character is just so unlikeable.

It’s difficult to criticise because, while I did not like this at all, there really isn’t much that is actively bad, it’s just thoroughly average. It had a few interesting moments, one or two great scenes, some brief tension, but this film was just not for me at all, and I’m not sure who it would be for; probably the older cinemagoer, but for me, I have overwhelmingly negative thoughts. As a big fan of McCarthy’s other work, I wanted to like this, but I just couldn’t. 

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