July 26, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Tom McCarthy
Some language in French with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in Marseille, France, and briefly in Stillwater, Oklahoma, the dramatic film “Stillwater” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and Middle Eastern people) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A middle-aged oil rig/construction worker from Stillwater, Oklahoma, goes to Marseille, France, where he tries to prove that his mid-20s daughter has been wrongly imprisoned for murder.
Culture Audience: “Stillwater” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in suspenseful and emotionally layered murder mysteries, even if some aspects of this crime investigation are far-fetched.
“Stillwater” is a crime drama that’s somewhat flawed in how a murder mystery is investigated in the movie, but the principal cast members bring emotional authenticity that resonates in an impactful way throughout the story. It’s a movie about a man with a checkered past who’s seeking redemption not only for his imprisoned daughter but also redemption for himself for being an absentee father for most of her life. And on another level, it’s a classic “fish out of water” story about an American trying to navigate the legal system and culture in France when he knows next to nothing about either.
“Stillwater” writer/director Tom McCarthy won a best original screenplay Oscar for 2015’s “Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe’s real-life investigation into sexual abuse by Catholic priests and the Catholic Church knowingly covering up these crimes. The crime investigation in “Stillwater” is much more personal and much more underground because it doesn’t always follow legal protocol, and is therefore much more dangerous. However, “Stillwater” (which McCarthy wrote with Thomas Bidegain, Marcus Hinchey and Noé Debré) is nowhere as authentic as “Spotlight,” when it comes to depicting a crime investigation.
In “Stillwater,” Bill Baker (played by Matt Damon) is a longtime oil rigger (also known as a roughneck) who has been experiencing some hard times in his hometown of Stillwater, Oklahoma. Six months ago, he was laid off from his job. He’s been able to find temporary construction jobs here and there, but his lack of steady employment has caused him a lot of financial strain. Bill has been an oil rig worker, ever since he dropped out of high school to work with his father, who was also a roughneck.
Bill’s personal life is also a mess. He’s been a widower ever since his wife committed suicide a little more than 20 years ago, when their daughter Allison (played by Abigail Breslin) was 4 years old. After this tragedy, Allison was raised by her maternal grandmother Sharon (played by Deanna Dunagan), who has a cordial relationship with Bill. It’s in contrast to the estranged relationship that Bill has with his own mother, whom he hasn’t been in contact with for years. Bill only hears about how his mother is doing when Sharon tells him.
The movie never explains why Bill and his mother are estranged, but later on in the story, Bill reveals that he’s in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. Now that Bill has more free time on his hands than when he was working full-time, he’s decided that he’s going to Marseille, France, for two weeks to try to solve the biggest problem he’s ever encountered: getting Allison exonerated for murder and released from prison.
Allison, who’s about 24 or 25, is in a Marseille prison and has served five years of a nine-year prison sentence for murdering her live-in lover Lena Momdi, who attended Marseille University with Allison. Going to the same university is how the former couple met. Lena is not shown in flashbacks, and whatever information about her in the movie comes mostly from Allison, who has vigorously maintained her innocence in Lena’s murder.
Why did Allison want to enroll in a university in France? It’s revealed later in the movie that she was very unhappy in Stillwater and wanted to live somewhere far away from her hometown. Lena, who was of Arabic heritage, had a very different background than Allison’s: Lena came from a stable, upper-middle-class family.
Allison’s and Lena’s personalities were different too. Allison is a creative type who likes to draw. She’s introverted and doesn’t make friends easily. Lena was more sociable and extroverted. It’s hinted throughout the movie that Lena was Allison’s first serious romance and the first relationship where Allison could live openly as a lesbian or queer woman.
The story comes out in bits and pieces in the movie, but these are the indisputable facts: In 2014, Lena was stabbed to death in the apartment that she shared with Allison, who doesn’t have an alibi during the time that investigators say that Lena was murdered. Allison claims that she came home to find Lena murdered. At the time, Lena and Allison were having problems in their relationship because Lena was cheating on Allison.
Allison says she doesn’t know who murdered Lena, but she has a theory that it was probably a guy in his 20s named Akim (played by Idir Azougli), whom Lena had recently met in a bar. Allison says she briefly met Akim too, but Allison doesn’t know anything about him except his first name, and she has a vague memory of what he looks like. Allison has told her father Bill that she found out that a female acquaintance had overheard Akim bragging about stabbing Lena.
That’s not enough to prove Allison’s innocence, but there was untested DNA at the crime scene. Allison thinks that the DNA is the DNA of the murderer and could be Akim’s, if Allison’s theory is correct. Bill then takes it upon himself to try get Allison’s case re-opened by finding the evidence that could exonerate her.
If this murder mystery sounds a lot like the real-life Amanda Knox case, that’s because “Stillwater” was partially inspired by Knox’s case, according to the “Stillwater” production notes. Knox was an American student attending a university in Perugia, Italy, in 2007, when she, her then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito and their acquaintance Rudy Guede were convicted of sexually assaulting and stabbing to death Knox’s British female roommate Meredith Kercher, who attended a different university in the same city. However, only Guede was directly tied to the crime through physical evidence (his bloody fingerprints), and Knox never wavered from proclaiming her innocence. The case was notorious for its twists and turns and worldwide media exposure.
Allison’s murder case in “Stillwater” also made a lot headlines, but the filmmakers wisely chose not to have flashbacks in this movie. That’s because the main characters in the story want to forget painful memories from their past. By the time that Bill visits Allison in prison, the media frenzy over Allison’s case has died down. And it seems that almost everyone involved, except Allison and her few family members, have given up hope that she will be exonerated and set free from prison.
While Bill is staying at a low-priced hotel, he notices the two people who are in the room next to his. He doesn’t find out who they are until a little later, but these hotel neighbors are theater actress Virginie (played by Camille Cottin) and her 8-year-old daughter Maya (played by Lilou Siauvaud), who is a bright and energetic child. Bill doesn’t know it yet, but all three of them will become part of each other’s lives in ways that they don’t expect.
The first time that Bill talks to Virginie, it’s because she’s partying on her room balcony with a friend. They’re laughing, drinking, and playing music loudly, so Bill asks them to keep the noise down. Virginie says that she only speaks French, and she has a dismissive tone toward Bill. A disgruntled Bill decides not to cause an argument and just shuts his room’s sliding glass door.
The next day, Bill sees that Maya has been locked out of the room and she doesn’t have a room key. Because he wants to make sure that Maya is safe, he takes her to the hotel lobby so that the front desk can give Maya a spare key. Virginie eventually shows up and she thanks Bill for his act of kindness. Bill notices that Virginie can speak perfect English. And when he points it out to her, Virginie looks embarrassed and makes a sheepish apology.
Virginie explains that the reason why Maya was accidentally locked out of the hotel room was because Virginie (who’s a single mother) was running late from an appointment for their new apartment. Virginie and Maya are staying at the hotel until they can move into their new home. Later, Virginie reveals to Bill that Maya’s father is alive but not in their lives, and that Virginie has been the only parent to raise Maya. Virginia describes Maya’s father as a “fling” who now lives in Crete.
Meanwhile, Allison doesn’t trust the prison mail system and knows all meetings and phone conversations in prison are recorded. And so, Allison has given Bill an important letter written in French that she wants him to hand-deliver to her defense attorney named Leparq (played by Anne Le Ny), to try to get the case re-opened. After encountering some obstacles, Bill gets an in-person meeting with Leparq, who reads the letter and says that there’s nothing more she can do because the case cannot be appealed without significant evidence.
A frustrated and angry Bill goes back to the hotel, where he asks Virginie to translate the letter for him. In the letter, Allison describes Akim as a likely person of interest who could be a match for the untested DNA that was at the crime scene. Allison also says in her letter that she doesn’t trust her father to help, even though he is her only family member who can be in France. (Allison’s grandmother Sharon, who wears an oxygen tube, has health issues and can’t travel overseas.)
As soon as Bill knows what the letter says, it’s at this point where viewers know he’s going to want to get back in Allison’s good graces. He meets with a local private investigator named Dirosa (played by Moussa Maaskri), but Bill can’t afford the investigator’s starting fee of €12,000. And so, that means Bill is going to do the investigating himself.
The first step is to find the witness who claims that she heard Akim confess to the murder. This witness can only speak French. Luckily, Viriginie is very sympathetic to Bill’s plight, and she readily agrees to be his translator. Things don’t go smoothly, of course, and Bill finds himself increasingly obsessed with finding Akim. Bill also gets personally involved with Virginie.
Although “Stillwater” does a very good job of unpeeling the layers of the story’s three complicated adults—Bill, Allison and Virginie—where the movie falters is in the almost absurd acts of vigilantism that Bill commits in the movie. His two immediate main goals are to find Akim and get Akim’s DNA. But since Bill doesn’t know Akim’s last name, and Allison can only give a vague description, there’s a time-consuming process of finding out if Akim really exists.
Akim really does exist. Bill finds him and stalks him. And there’s a scene in the movie where Bill has the perfect opportunity to get Akim’s DNA by taking a plastic straw and cup that Akim was drinking from and then discarded at an outdoor cafe. However, Bill doesn’t take the cup and straw as DNA evidence. Something else happens that takes this movie down a very dark path. Viewers will have to assume that Bill is so ignorant about the law that he doesn’t know that how evidence is gathered can affect whether or not the evidence is admissible in court.
“Stillwater” has many references to the cultural and social class differences of an American like Bill being in France. Bill has to correct people who incorrectly assume that because he’s American who has the ability to travel to France, he must be rich. In another scene, Virginie agrees to help Bill after she suspiciously asks him, “Did you vote for [Donald] Trump?”
Bill doesn’t say what his political leanings are and instead says he can’t vote in U.S. elections because he’s a convicted felon, although he doesn’t say why he was in prison and when. Virginie makes it clear that Bill’s prison record wouldn’t bother her as much as it would bother her if he voted for Trump. She hangs out with a lot of progressive hipster types in her theater group.
In another scene, Virginie and Bill have an argument when she helps him interview a local cafe owner who might have seen Akim. The cafe owner named Max (played by Pierre Piacentino) is very racist against Arabs and tells Virginie in French that he’s willing to accuse anyone Arab to help with the case. Virginie abruptly ends the interview in disgust and tells Bill why, but Bill is willing to overlook this racism because he thinks the cafe owner might still have valuable information.
Bill tells Virginie that he works with a lot of people who have these racists thoughts, but he believes you can still work with these people if they’re on your side. It’s the first of many clues that Bill is willing to do whatever it takes to free Allison from prison, even if it could mean getting a racist witness who will lie in order to wrongfully accuse someone. Virginie makes it clear that she has certain ethics that are non-negotiable. It won’t be the last time that Bill’s and Virginie’s two different moral codes will clash with each other.
An issue that “Stillwater” doesn’t adequately address is that Allison got only a nine-year prison sentence for murder. That’s an incredibly lenient sentence, considering that it was a brutal stabbing that appears to have been pre-meditated. It’s implied throughout the story that Allison was convicted of first-degree murder. It’s never discussed in the movie (although it should have been discussed) that Allison, who’s young enough to potentially have several decades of life ahead of her, was lucky to get such a light prison sentence for this serious crime.
No one says the words “white privilege” in this movie, but a lot of viewers who know that racial inequalities exist in criminal justice systems will immediately think about how a person of color in the same circumstances as Allison probably would’ve gotten a punishment that’s a lot worse and longer than a nine-year prison sentence. Likewise, Bill takes for granted and feels emboldened that as a white man traveling by himself, he can feel entitled to go in certain neighborhoods as a stranger and do whatever vigilante things that he does. It’s because he consciously or subconsciously knows that people are less likely to call the police on someone who looks like him when he acts aggressively or does suspicious things.
Allison already served five years of that nine-year prison sentence, so it raises more questions that the movie doesn’t answer about how Bill and Allison went about solving her legal problems. The legal process to get someone exonerated could take a lot more than four years. And it means that Allison could be released from prison in a shorter period of time than it could take for her to be exonerated.
That probability is never discussed in the movie, because “Stillwater” is all about Bill trying to get things done in an unrealistic “only in a movie” period of time. And yes, Bill and Allison want to clear Allison’s name. But at what cost, when Bill starts breaking the law like a vigilante?
It’s why “Stillwater,” even though it benefits from stirring performances by the principal cast members, it still feels like a Hollywood version of how to free a prisoner who claims to be wrongly convicted. Usually, in melodramatic movies like “Stillwater,” someone is portrayed as a one-person juggernaut doing almost all the detective work. In reality, it takes several people and many years of investigations and court procedures to get a convicted prisoner exonerated.
In the production notes for “Stillwater,” McCarthy comments on some of the main inspirations for him to make the movie: “I was inspired by a number of Mediterranean Noir writers like Andrea Camilleri, Massimo Carlotto and Jean-Claude Izzo, whose brilliant Marseille Trilogy led me to the French city. One visit to Marseille and I knew that I found my port.”
And just like those novels, “Stillwater” is a fictional version of life. The movie is entertaining, suspenseful and a “be careful what you wish for” cautionary tale. However, “Stillwater” shouldn’t be used as an ideal example of a dramatic film that realistically portrays how to try to get someone out of prison.
Focus Features will release “Stillwater” in U.S. cinemas on July 30, 2021.