REVIEW: ‘Stillwater’ stalls due to poor narrative choices

Films inspired by a true story often take artistic liberties, which is perfectly fine. They better be well executed, though.

In this case, “Stillwater” was inspired by the story of Amanda Knox, an American woman falsely convicted on the charge of murdering a fellow exchange student in Italy. Abigail Breslin portrays Allison in “Stillwater,” an American woman in France who’s been in prison for four years.

Allison was convicted of murdering her roommate and classmate from a French university, although she maintains her innocence. Also convinced of her innocence is her dad, Bill (Matt Damon). The movie picks up with Bill visiting Allison in jail. During his stay, he learns there might be more evidence to prove her innocence and decides to stay, in case a development happens.

“Stillwater” has some drastic changes in the story that’s being told and, subsequently, it’s tone. At first, when Bill is initially visiting Allison and her attorney, it seems like it will be a legal drama.

Then, Bill meets a French woman, Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) and they all hit it off, with Virginie helping Bill with translating. Finally, in the third act, a development in the case happens and the movie takes a dark turn into crime drama territory.

These changes were all rather jarring. It’s like the film couldn’t pick a lane. However, walking in, while I wasn’t familiar with the Knox case, I was aware that this movie had been inspired by some true events.

With that in mind, it’s easy to brush off these story inconsistencies, since there’s a chance all of these events actually did happen and they’re simply being documented. But as it turns out, most of everything in “Stillwater” is made-up, meaning what could have been forgiven is no longer forgivable.

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Courtesy Focus Features and Participant Media.

Amanda Knox’s case was in Italy, this was in France. Knox was from Washington state and her father worked in finance, Bill is from Oklahoma and is a roughneck. There was no French family and what happened in the third act was completely fabricated.

Yes, this was only inspired, not based, on a true story and there are artistic liberties. However, the path writer and director Tom McCarthy decided to take with this movie is just bizarre and results in a below average drama.

The biggest issue is all of the things that are stacked on top of an already intriguing story. There’s enough packed into Allison’s legal case and the fact that the character was written to be in a relationship with her roommate to make for a fascinating feature.

However, it’s bogged down by the subplot revolving around Bill starting a relationship with Cottin’s character and being a father figure to Maya. The movie becomes an emotional family story at that point and while watching Bill go into dad-mode around Maya is cute, his relationship with Virginie feels forced and somewhat out of place.

Then, what happens in the third act with Bill feels like it’s out of a completely different movie. This leads into another problem, the movie is so centered on Bill, when it becomes clear as time goes on that it should’ve given more attention to Allison.

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Allison is the one who’s really suffering in the movie. She’s the one who has to deal with trauma from what happened to her roommate and the anger over being in prison despite her innocence.

Yet McCarthy keeps his attention on Bill’s culture shock over being a person from rural America living in a French city.

Despite the negatives, “Stillwater” isn’t a truly bad film. It has competent direction from McCarthy, who helmed my favorite movie from 2015 “Spotlight.” There are plenty of scenes that do work in getting across the tragedy of the situation and capturing the strained father-daughter relationship.

The film is also benefitted by its Academy Award nominees Damon and Breslin as well as Cesar Award nominee (French Oscar equivalent) Cottin. While the character Bill is a bit one dimensional at times, Damon makes the emotional scenes convincing.

In the scenes she’s in, Breslin is really good, too. Unfortunately, as previously stated, her character doesn’t get the screen time she deserves.

“Stillwater” feels like a missed opportunity. It doesn’t do the story it was inspired by justice and the film overall is convoluted with an inconsistent tone. It’s salvaged somewhat by its talented cast and experienced director, but not by much. 2.25 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

2 thoughts on “REVIEW: ‘Stillwater’ stalls due to poor narrative choices”

  1. I haven’t seen Stillwater yet, but I feel like films similar to this one always put too much attention on the main star rather than the characters, or even the plot itself within the film. I’ll check it out sometime tho. Excellent review fellow Matthew.

    Liked by 1 person

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