Stillwater is a legal thriller loosely based on a true story about a young American woman imprisoned abroad because she’s believed to have killed her cheating lesbian lover, and her father’s quest to help save her. When Abigail is accused of murder and all signs point to her, she desperately reaches out for help. Bill, her estranged father, is a longshot champion for Amanda, but he leaves his comfort zone to travel abroad seeking answers to help his kid.
Bill Baker (Matt Damon) is an Oklahoma roughneck, cleaning up disasters professionally. A good, God-fearing man, he’s written off his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) because she’s a lesbian who left home to go pursue college. So, when she gets herself wrapped up in a murder and all signs point to her, Bill lets her sit in a French prison because that’s her fate. However, when Abigail, who doesn’t think very highly of Bill either, writes a letter to a local judge after five years of being imprisoned, part of her plea is that her own family won’t help her. This incites Bill into flying to Marseille to investigate further and potentially help out his daughter, and to rebuild a relationship with her, if possible.
Abigail needs Bill to get a note to her lawyer, so that she can feasibly get a witness that will back up her story. But when that fails, it leads Bill on a wild adventure through the city of Marseille, with whose customs he is very unfamiliar, as he tries to prove his daughter’s innocence, both for himself and to free her. At the same time, he wants to prove that he has what it takes to be a dad, desperate to not fail his daughter once again.
On his quest to find out more, Bill befriends an interpreter and single mother named Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). As they search for clues, they grow closer and Bill decides to extend his stay in France indefinitely. But will Bill be able to find justice for his daughter, or replace her in his heart with a new family?
Co-written and directed by Tom McCarthy (Spotlight, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made) there’s an interesting character study in Bill, as well as an insightful journey through Marseille. The characters throughout Stillwater all have very human elements and failings, for which they’re trying to become better. The acting is quite good throughout, with believable dialogue and uncomfortable situations pervading.
Exploring racism, classism, and homophobia, there are a lot of issues at the forefront of Stillwater. But the lens is always through the Bill’s character, making it both a sideways exploration as well as something that might translate to an audience of the same background.
In defiance of a traditional genre, Stillwater has enjoyable moments across a broad range of possibilities. What seems like a taught thriller relaxes into a possibly excessively long yet well-crafted middle, then gets back on track to decide the ultimate fate of the characters. Despite a disjointed blend of films, it works rather well as a complete movie.