Retelling of the Amanda Knox story
It took Hollywood long enough to do something with the case of Amanda Knox. The highly publicized case of a young girl accused, convicted and eventually freed of killing her roommate abroad seemed tailored perfect for a big screen interpretation yet from 2007 there have been no attempts, not until now. Luckily Stillwater does not take the exploitive approach of the story instead taking some inspiration from the real-life case and creating its own engaging story.
Bill Barnes (Matt Damon) is your everyday working-class American living in Stillwater, Oklahoma working in oil rigs living a very average almost boring life but with one twist- every couple of months he visits his daughter in Marseille who is in prison being convicted of killing her roommate/ lover.
On one such visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) tells him that there are new developments in the case and hands him a note and asks him to give to her lawyer. The lawyer wants nothing to do with it so Bill takes matters into his own hands determined to prove his daughter innocence with the help of a theater actress Virgine (Cammile Cotin) and her daughter Maya ( Lilo Siauvaud) (since his French is limited to merci) who he very conveniently meets at the hotel where he is staying.
However, in the process of trying to find a way to prove his daughter’s innocence he becomes more and more close to Virgine and Maya creating somewhat of a surrogate family, a family he never had since his wife committed suicide years ago. As Bill digs deeper in his daughters’ case the worlds are in danger of colliding and by the end of the film he will have to make sacrifices which may or may not be justified.
It’s a classic story of a father willing to do anything for his daughter told countless times elevated by great performances and the actor’s chemistry yet the films suffer from identity crisis. It tries to be both a very exciting thriller and heartwarming drama but it does not always blend together well. The case itself is quite interesting and engaging and the viewer keeps guessing until the very end is Allison guilty or not (mostly due to a vey ambivalent performance by Bresling) but it sometimes feels neglected and put aside. This is most notable in the movies second act where after an hour of criminal investigation the movies takes a sudden turn and you are left with family drama for 45 minutes which drags the movie a lot and does not justify its excessive runtime of two hours and twenty minutes.
The importance of Marseille
The city of Marseille is a character itself in the movie and whoever’s decision it was to put the story there deserves a raise as well as the production designer in charge of locations capturing the cities beat perfectly. From the rusty buildings, old roads and highways, poor neighborhood projects to football stadiums it feels as the city breaths in the movie emphasized by Bill who feels very out of place in it.
Its also a story about cultural differences between America and Europe focusing on small details. At one moment they asked Bill with frightened curiosity if he voted for Trump (he didn’t) at the other they are shocked at what he eats and almost amused that he says prayers before eating, while Bill is amazed at the atmosphere of Velodrome at the football game (which he earlier called fake). It is also worth nothing that the one thing he doesn’t even flinch is racism which is obviously steel present in Europe as well in America
A very determined Damon
Director Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) and Damon did extensive research in the state of Oklahoma for the character of Bill (Barnes is actually the name of one of the people they encountered along the way) and it shows. Damon is very determined in his role, from the goatee and the baseball cap with sunglasses on it to the noticeable but not over the top accent, he is very believable as the everyday man. It also worth nothing that Barnes is not at all portrayed as a hero (Bill is a former alcoholic, drug addict, has a criminal record, was an absentee father) even though it is a frequent trap that movies like this fell into.
The young actress Lilo Siauvaud in her debut role is another standout in the movie. She is very natural and sweet and has excellent chemistry with Damon which is very important since it the vital aspect of the drama portion of the film.
Overall, it feels as if the movie would have much better as an hour and half thriller or drama not both but nonetheless it is an above average movie highlighted by Damon and Marseille and a very clever and bittersweet ending giving it a more European feeling instead of the standard Hollywood happy end.