‘Stillwater’ Movie Review

Saw ‘Stillwater’ at the theater last night. Here’s a brief summary and review.

Matt Damon plays Bill, a roughneck or roustabout (a person who works on oil rigs and follows the work to wherever it is) who is recently unemployed and does day labor cleaning up after tornadoes. He prays before every meal, even a lunch meal of sandwiches, and says ‘sir’ and ‘mam’ seemingly obsessively. His wife is dead, his mother-in-law (Deanna Dunagan) is housebound and sick, and he appears to have no other family. After interviewing for a job Bill visits his mother-in-law, packs a suitcase and takes a flight to France. Bill’s daughter Allison

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(Abigail Breslin) is in prison in Marseilles, having been convicted of murder. Five years previously Allison was due to attend the University of Oklahoma but chose college in France, we later learn, to get as much distance between her and her father as possible. Bill and Allison have been estranged for some time, as Allison was raised by her grandmother after her mom died. Allison has four years left of a five year sentence and continues to insist she is innocent. At her request Bill speaks to Allison’s lawyer about a “new” lead in the case. A man (Akim) was heard to brag about killing a girl (Allison’s roommate and lover Lina) and getting away with it. The lawyer says all legal remedies have been exhausted and that Bill and Allison must accept her sentence and not have false hope. Bill and Allison do not do that of course, there’d be no movie otherwise, and Bill sets out on his own to prove his daughter’s innocence. Bill finds work as an illegal alien doing construction, meets a French woman Virginie (Camille Cottin)

who acts as his interpreter, and acts as a father figure to Virginie’s daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud)

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, and moves in with Virginie and Maya while he looks for Akim. Bill doesn’t speak French and blunders around showing people a picture of Akim and going “Akim? Akim.” Bill has no luck but is later saved by Akim in an deus ex machina. Scenes alternate between Bill trying to find Akim, spending time with Virginie and Maya, and working. The theme of Bill trying to redeem himself for the terrible father and husband he was and is is very heavy-handed.

End of review

‘Stillwater’ is very long and takes its time resolving the central conflict. Damon’s facial hair and accent get irritating immediately but the acting is good and the scenes between Bill, Allison, Virginie, and Maya are touching. Worth watching yes. Worth paying to watch…yes. The local theater charges $5 for all movies on Tuesday. I recommend not paying much more than this.

(Spoilers follow)

Random thoughts:

‘Stillwater’ is almost exactly point for a point the Amanda Knox story. A young American girl goes to a foreign country to study abroad, has numerous sexual encounters (Knox and her roommate were rumored to play sex games involving multiple men), gets mixed up in the murder of a roommate, is convicted while claiming a foreign man actually committed the murder. Whereas the saga for Knox is over Allison is not as lucky (I won’t spoil the ending). The similarities are so obvious I thought maybe ‘Stillwater’ was based on Amanda Knox’s story. A quick internet tells it is with all parts not relating to Allison made up entirely. I did no research before seeing the movie but now see that Knox has had much to say about ‘Stillwater’ on twitter.

Damon’s liberal politics seem to infuse the movie. After cleaning up a tornado Damon is riding home with Mexican day laborers. In Spanish the laborers say things likes “Americans are lazy” and “Americans are stupid for rebuilding where a tornado just struck.” I’m sure there have been and are Mexicans who say such things but in a movie about a father trying to reconnect with his daughter they are out of place. Later Bill decides to stay in France, over staying his visitor visa, and gets under the table work as a day laborer himself. Is this Damon hinting that anyone can find themselves in such a situation? Virginie takes Bill to meet a bar owner who witnessed Akin bragging about the murder. The bar owner says to tell him which Arab to identify and he will, saying they should all be in prison. Virginie is offended and leaves. Bill, the white roughneck from rural Oklahoma, tells her that he worked with lots of guys like that back home. Sort of telling her that the guys like me are racist but I’m not. The movies ending sealed it. In real life the Italian court found the white American girl innocent of the murder, and it was the dark-skinned foreigner who committed the crime. In ‘Stillwater’ Allison is at least party responsible for her roommate’s death. She offered to pay Akim if he “got rid of Lina.” In Allison’s mind she meant only to make her leave but Akim, a member of a prominent local gang interprets “get rid of” as kill, so he kills Lina. So in the end it is the white American’s fault.

The Marseilles depicted in ‘Stillwater’ is a giant dump. All buildings are covered in graffiti and/or are crumbling. Most housing is projects. It seems like a giant slum though at one point Viginie takes Maya to visit her Godparents who live in a mansion in the “other” part of Marseilles so maybe not all. Though it is not explained why the movie depicts only the bad side of Marseilles. Well, according to an article on http://www.iconicriviera.com I just read, Marseilles is the poorest and most dangerous city in France. Gangs run huge portions of the city and there are even places where they’ve blockaded the streets and on permit certain people to pass. So Marseilles is a shithole apparently.

Prison in Marseilles seems to be pretty cool. Guests are not stripped search and are allowed to bring gifts for prisoners. Things like clothes, food, books, toys, art supplies, etc. Prisoners and guests get their own private rooms for visits. The guards are polite and not always yelling. Prisoners wear street clothes not prison jumpsuits. Allison tells Maya that prison is terrible but for a convicted murdered she seems to have it ok. (A quick search tells me France, and Marseilles in particular, have the worst prison conditions in Europe.

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