Matt Damon delivers a solid lead performance in slow-burn thriller Stillwater

Stillwater: Matt Damon as Bill
Damon Smith

STILLWATER (15, 139 mins) Thriller/Romance. Matt Damon, Camille Cottin, Lilou Siauvaud, Abigail Breslin, Deanna Dunagan, Anne Le Ny, Idir Azougli. Director: Tom McCarthy.

Released: August 6

LIFE is brutal. Those words are repeated in Tom McCarthy's slow-burning thriller, inspired by the case of American student Amanda Knox, who was eventually exonerated of killing her British roommate Meredith Kercher in Italy.

Co-written by McCarthy, Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain and Noe Debre, Stillwater trades Perugia in central Italy for the busy French port of Marseilles and reconfigures years of legal to-and-fro as a bruising one-man crusade anchored by Matt Damon as the accused's father.

The spectre of Donald Trump looms large and the script addresses political ire in an early scene when a French character directly asks Damon's patriarch if he voted Republican in the presidential election. There is visible relief when he says he didn't.

"I got arrested. They don't let you vote when that happens," he casually explains.

Western ideals repeatedly clash in McCarthy's picture and the tug-of-war between four international screenwriters mines humour from the cultural divide, like when a French mother observes an American guest saying grace over a homemade hamburger and quips, "When I see what you guys eat, I understand why you pray".

Damon delivers a solid lead performance opposite co-star Camille Cottin, trading heavily on his nice-guy screen persona to milk occasional droplets of sympathy for his gruff and exasperating roughneck.

He carries the film through the longueurs of an unwieldly 139-minute running time.

Construction worker Bill Baker (Damon) travels from Oklahoma to Marseilles where his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) is five years into a nine-year sentence for killing her partner Lina Hamdi.

Allison has always asserted her innocence but the French media demonised her in the run-up to the trial. During his latest visit, Allison passes Tom a note intended for her lawyer Leparq (Anne Le Ny), which raises the tantalising possibility that a young man named Akim (Idir Azougli) is responsible for Lina's murder.

The lawyer refuses to act on hearsay – "The last thing you want to give your daughter is false hope" – so Bill recklessly takes matters into his own hands.

To overcome the language barrier, he enlists the services of actress Virginie (Cottin) as a translator and befriends her cherubic eight-year-old daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud).

Stillwater is torn between immersing us in a fascinating character study of a charmless American abroad and delivering conventional narrative beats replete with loose threads tied into a neat bow by the end credits.

Differing attitudes to matters of race are exemplified when Virginie explains that it isn't safe to search for Akim on an overcrowded housing estate.

"Because we're white?" interjects Bill. "Because we're not from there," she responds, bristling with indignation.

His crude stumbles through a minefield of political correctness set the characters apart and are ultimately the most fascinating facet of McCarthy's quest for justice.


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