Tom McCarthy has proven himself as a thoughtful and insightful writer and director over the last two decades. The crowning achievement of both was Spotlight, which won him an Oscar for Original Screenplay as well as Best Picture. It’s one of the greatest films of the century so far, highlighting the yeoman’s work that goes into investigative journalism, and the measured approach professionals take in telling the truth to the world, especially with regard to such a sensitive and dangerous topic as pedophile priests. He gave us an utterly brilliant procedural that emphasized how important facts and truth were, regardless of consequences.
Well, most of that is out the window with his latest effort, Stillwater. Very, very, VERY loosely based on the plight of Amanda Knox, who was wrongfully imprisoned in Italy for years for a crime she didn’t commit, the movie is little more than an assertion of American exceptionalism disguised as family drama, wasting a genuinely great cast by going for sensationalism over reality.
The first lie we got told happened months ago, when the trailer was released for the film. In it, a crusading father (Matt Damon) is hell-bent on proving his daughter’s (Abigail Breslin) innocence, willing to do whatever it takes to see her name cleared and her given back to him. He appears to navigate an insular French community hostile to foreigners, unafraid of the risks involved, to defeat a corrupt system that victimized his daughter for the sake of a tabloid-level story, which is what sort of happened to Knox. Her character was assassinated repeatedly by the Italian press in the leadup to court, to the point that public opinion had turned so much against her that her trial became mostly for show. She was convicted of murder based on basically nothing, and when mountains of evidence exonerated her, the Italian judicial system insisted on her continued imprisonment. Even after she was finally acquitted and released, she was convicted again in absentia once she was back in the States.
But that’s not what this story is about. Instead, it’s more of a framing device. Bill Baker is a heartland construction worker who travels often to Marseilles to visit daughter Allison in prison. He brings care packages and does her laundry, but they basically have no relationship, and she doesn’t trust him to do anything useful. Bill’s quest to get her released is much more about proving himself to his daughter and mending their estranged bond than it is righting an injustice. The prison term itself isn’t even all that much of a burden at the in media res start of the film, as Allison’s been sentenced to seven years, has already served four, and over the course of the movie, serves an additional one. Her time is very close to over at this point, and she even gets supervised release days to help reacclimate her to the outside world.
Bill takes it upon himself to investigate a flimsy lead about the real killer when Allison’s lawyer refuses, leading to him meeting an actress named Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). Bill and Virginie form a transactional friendship, with him serving as a handyman in her apartment and afterschool babysitter to Maya, while Virginie helps him with logistics the language barrier, because despite multiple visits over several years, not only does Bill not speak a word of French, Matt Damon’s overly affected Southern drawl plays like a cultural double down, an assertion that his folksy speech and ignorance is a proper recourse under the circumstances.
The film does spend most of its first act with Bill aggressively pursuing what little information he can gather from the locals, who are not only reticent to talk to an American, but to give up any intel at all. There’s a hint of homage to much better films, like France’s Les Misérables from a couple years ago, or any number of movies about poor neighborhoods who handle their criminal element internally. It’s a bit heavy-handed at times, and Bill asserting his “American-ness,” either directly or indirectly, gets old FAST, but there are the makings of another strong procedural here, and apart from Damon’s accent, the core performances are quite strong, particularly young Siauvaud, who is just goddamn adorable.
But the story we all came to see is quickly abandoned in favor of Bill trying to “start over” with Virginie and Maya. He insinuates himself into their lives, becomes a “cool stepdad” character for Maya (their chemistry is cute as hell), and eventually forming a romantic relationship with Virginie.
Even though this wasn’t what we were sold, there’s potential in this avenue as well, but it’s never realized. It could have been intriguing to see a modern American stereotype find a way to assimilate into a European culture, learn their language, and become a part of a new way of life, but he doesn’t. Apart from a begrudging acceptance of soccer – mostly so the production could use an Olympique de Marseilles game to propel the plot forward with the most convenient of coincidences – Bill instead steadfastly refuses to change anything about his character over the course of two hours. He picks up a few words here and there despite being immersed in the language, he insists on everyone saying grace before each meal, even though he’s the only evangelical in the cast, and when one of Virginie’s skeptical friends asks him if he voted for Trump, he says he didn’t, but only because a past criminal record prevents him from voting at all. There’s a strong irony that a character who is meant to represent a fairly sizeable chunk of the U.S. population won’t do what those of his ilk expect any immigrants to our country to do, but it doesn’t play as intentional in the film, rather like more of an unfortunate accident.
Essentially, there’s no reason to root for Bill, or really Allison for that matter. In the few scenes she has, most of them involve delayed teenage angst and standard-issue father-daughter bickering. He’s an Ugly American, and she’s an entitled brat. Oddly, the one thing she could – and arguably should – have harped on as terrible fathering by Bill is never really addressed. The moment Bill’s investigation hits a dead end, he basically abandons his daughter and her plight to attempt to get a do-over at dadding with Virginie and Maya. There’s one scene shared by all four, and it’s quite nice, but it’s clear that there’s no intention of this being some sort of Franco-American blended family after Allison gets released. In practical terms, she’s been replaced, and she seems to be perfectly fine with it, which would never fucking happen.
The only thing that truly brings Bill and Allison back together is the eventual resolution of her case, which is some bullshit. Instead of the airtight leg work that McCarthy displayed in Spotlight, the situation reaches its end due mostly to bribery and deus ex machinas that are so contrived that Amanda Knox herself has openly denounced the film as defaming her and outright lying about her life. She likely won’t get to sue, because the movie is not explicitly about her or her case. It was just the “inspiration” in McCarthy’s mind, and Knox herself was never consulted during production, but that doesn’t excuse the outright dishonesty shown here.
It’s disturbing and deeply disappointing how easily McCarthy dispensed with all the things that made Spotlight an all-time great film. Instead of compelling characters, we get (admittedly well-acted) one-note stereotypes. Instead of an empathetic tale of justice denied, we get borderline jingoism with Bill asserting he knows best just because he’s American. Instead of a well-reasoned, compelling drama showing how dedicated people uncover the truth, most of the story beats are deployed by convenient plot bots while Bill’s figuratively and literally attempting to upgrade his own family. And most importantly, instead of a heartfelt commitment to the truth, this movie is simply a pack of lies, and that’s just not entertaining.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have you ever been to France? Did you ever kill anyone and pin it on an American college student, because if so, have I got a director for you? Let me know!