Amanda Knox doesn’t have a story credit on Tom McCarthy’s latest, Stillwater. But it is clear from the off that her conviction, imprisonment and later exoneration for the murder of fellow student Meredith Kercher sowed the seeds for this brooding drama about an Oklahoma construction worker (Matt Damon) determined to prise his daughter (Abigail Breslin) from the Marseille prison she has spent the last five years in for ostensibly killing her girlfriend.
Damon’s Bill Baker isn’t rich, has no connections and can’t speak French. But he is tenacious, dogged and good with his fists, attributes that not only persuade actor Virginie (Camille Cottin) to take up his cause but also help him track down a mystery man who might hold the key to his daughter’s liberty.
Spotlight director McCarthy skilfully cranks up the tension as Damon – beefier and craggier than he was in his Jason Bourne heyday – entangles both Virginie and her own daughter Maya (a scene-stealing Lilou Siauvaud) in his Taken-esque quest. Yet he also finds time for politics: co-writers Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré and Marcus Hinchey make sure that Damon’s blue-collar hero carries some Trumpian baggage on his journey across the Atlantic.
It’s certainly hard not to think of The Donald as this obsessive dad tramples roughshod over local sensibilities, takes the law into his own hands and contemplates pinning the murder on a blameless immigrant. This, however, is merely a precursor to the kinder and wiser Bill we see gradually emerge – a corrective, clearly, to the erstwhile president’s divisive MAGA rhetoric.
Yet no sooner has Bill earned a place in Virginie’s home and heart with his Maya-minding skills and bathroom-fixing abilities (Basin Bourne?) than a gigantic coincidence occurs that puts Stillwater firmly back on to a thriller footing. The machinations that follow stretch the plot’s credibility to breaking point, testing the tolerance in a way that could prompt derisive sniggers from less forgiving viewers. Damon’s sturdy presence just about holds it together, while Breslin shows some impressive chops as the daughter who is too aware of his failings to see him as her saviour. By the end, though, the still waters McCarthy seeks to navigate don’t run deep so much as dry – a consequence, you suspect, of trying to cram too many genres into one star vehicle.
Stillwater was shown at Cannes Film Festival. The movie is out in US cinemas from July 30. In the meantime, check out the most exciting upcoming movies heading your way.