Stillwater: An American in Marseille

Stillwater, Oklahoma, may be miles from Marseille. Geographically, but especially culturally. However, this is where Tom McCarthy, the Oscar-winning director of Spotlight, imagined the plot of his latest unconventional thriller, now in U.S. theaters and scheduled for release in France on September 22.
Matt Damon in Tom McCarthy’s Stillwater. © Jessica Forde/Focus Features

Stillwater tells the story of Allison Baker (Abigail Breslin), an American student at the University of Marseille, who has been imprisoned for five years for the murder of her girlfriend, Lina, a young French-Arab woman from Marseille. Since her incarceration, her father, Bill Baker (Matt Damon), a roughneck who is trying to get his life back together, has been making regular trips to France to visit her. During his latest stay, new and potentially game-changing information surfaces. Against everyone’s advice, Bill takes charge of the investigation, hoping to clear his daughter’s name and bring her home.

The movie ticks all the action movie boxes: a story (very loosely) inspired by the Amanda Knox case, and a father willing to do anything to save his daughter and regain her trust, even if it means fighting the bad guys – embodied here by the French justice system, which is not very helpful, and the young residents of les quartiers nords, the city’s infamous inner city. Matt Damon arrives with his big eagle-tattooed arms and his MAGA look in PACA (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, the region surrounding Marseille).

However, the figure of the American male savior is not the usual one. Bill describes himself as “fucked-up,” proud of his origins and his background, yet not so proud of himself. The story is told from the point of view of this complex character, who is neither the mighty hero nor an innocent victim. Especially since in Marseille, an American whose daughter has been convicted of murder would be well advised to keep a low profile. Matt Damon plays an ordinary guy, who seeks neither sympathy nor pity from his fellow man. While we were expecting something rather explosive, Stillwater offers above all a social depiction where very different cultures collide.

Matt Damon at the Stade Vélodrome

The former oil-rig worker from Oklahoma finds himself confronted with the local housing projects, social tensions, and the microcosm that is Marseille, but also with a more gentrified milieu, embodied by Virginie (Camille Cottin, of Call My Agent! fame), a theater actress and single mother who takes on the role of the interpreter and guide through the chaos of the city. None of these codes are familiar but it doesn’t seem to bother him. He keeps on praying, investigating, and even attempts to speak French. He drives down the corniche in a Kangoo van chasing the real murderer, attends a soccer game at the Stade Vélodrome, and enjoys the quietness of the calanques.

Matt Damon and Camille Cottin in Stillwater, shot in Marseille. © Jessica Forde/Focus Features

A large part of the film is devoted to his relationship with Virginie and her daughter Maya (the surprising Lilou Siauvaud). While the investigation is on hold, Bill is surprisingly at ease in this new setting and is made even more comfortable by the pretty neo-Marseillaise woman, who is horrified by guns and Donald Trump. Finally, by saving his daughter, he may save himself as well.

Between a lesson in humility and dreams of new beginnings, Stillwater is a film full of promises which struggles to get rid of certain clichés. Tom McCarthy called on the screenwriting duo Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré (Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan) in the hope of bypassing the usual representation of Marseille as a lawless city. A mission only half accomplished.

is also available on demand on Amazon, Apple TV, and YouTube.