Exoneration appears to be a hard task indeed. For Bill Baker (Matt Damon), the innocence of his daughter, in prison for a murder she claims she did not commit, is the most important point of his life. His aim and desire to clear Allison (Abigail Breslin) of wrongdoing is touching and portrays the dedication parents often have to their offspring. Incompetence, language barriers, the pressure to convict someone, anyone, for a crime that demands public justice, and Stillwater comes together as an enticing, effective drama that depends on justice seeing the light of day. A loose adaptation (and a controversial one at that) of Amanda Knox’s struggle to clear her name, Stillwater takes the blue-collar American lifestyle and embeds it deep within a thrilling portrayal of foul play.
Damon knows what is expected of him, and director Tom McCarthy has no trouble coaxing that wistful, abandoned isolation from him. Baker lives alone, travels to work with relatively little care for the world around him, and is constantly tired. He naps, he works, he eats. A goatee-clad Damon brings that monotony to life. It is the stress of everyday life that keeps him down, and those stresses are broadly adaptable to the lives of the audience. Most will have cared for those they loved, seen them beaten down and hurt. Stillwater inflicts the pain of that on the leading man and the audience extremely well. McCarthy does nothing of particular brilliance in his direction, but the simplicity and focus on the obvious points of interest serve this story well.
It’s that shared misery an audience can connect to. Telling his neighbours to tone the music down, being met with a harsh response. Falling asleep in front of the TV after a gruelling shift. All of this adds character, depth and meaning to Baker, whose travel to France is as tiring as his day job. This is where Breslin adds the tense elements that make the humdrum life of the father so interesting. McCarthy does not need to do much, but his work behind the camera brings all the right pieces together. He focuses on the reaction of characters, the inner workings of their mind spilling out as they react to terrible events and respond to uncomfortable realisations. Soon, the legal jargon picks up and it is the fish-out-of-water element Bill Baker that proves the frustrating reality of Stillwater. That much is adapted exceptionally well. Truth or not, the maze of legality for the minds of those who do not believe they will be affected by it is expressed well through Damon’s performance and those his character interacts with.
But beyond the legal jargon that feels rather fitting for the confusion this character is sullied with, Stillwater is a fine bit of drama. McCarthy does not push too hard on what can be done with the genre, but he does not need to. Not with Stillwater. It is fine enough with Damon at the helm. He and Breslin have good chemistry but can also survive without depending on one another’s performances. Independent scenes see them grapple with the way they perceive home. Someone who desperately misses it and feels they have no chance of returning will feel far more grateful than the man who has risked the home he is content with to clear the family name. It is the disparity between the two, and the challenge of reuniting them on friendly soil that makes Stillwater such a fascinating watch.