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For Americans, Stillwater May Be 'Ugly'

Film has something to say about the US, but doesn't quite manage it: critic
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 30, 2021 11:13 AM CDT

(Newser) – A denim-wearing Oklahoma roughneck (Matt Damon) seeks a killer on the streets of Marseille, France, where his estranged college-age daughter (Abigail Breslin) is serving time for a murder she says she didn't commit. That's Stillwater, the new film inspired by the case of Amanda Knox and directed by Tom McCarthy. It has a lukewarm 70% critic approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Four takes:

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  • For Damon, "it's one more growth spurt in a career that continues to be full of them," writes Joe Morgenstern at the Wall Street Journal. Helping him along are Camille Cottin, who plays a helpful single mother, and a "bewitching" Lilou Siauvaud, who plays her 9-year-old daughter. "What's persuasive, beguiling and not at all formulaic is how the roughneck flourishes and changes under the influence of a good woman who has foibles of her own, and a smart, funny kid," Morgenstern writes.
  • It's "one part international thriller, one part meditation on America's role in a changing and pluralistic society, one part father-daughter psychodrama and one part improbable romance." And "some of those threads work better than others," writes Ann Hornaday at the Washington Post, who gives the film 2.5 stars out of four. She found the film "too plotty," while Damon's "best efforts to hide [his] charisma … keep his character at constant arm's length."

  • Bill Baker "is a hard part to pull off," especially as he "outwardly reveals little emotion." But Damon manages the feat, "creating a flawed but compassionate character" marked by a "haunted sadness," writes Mark Kennedy at the AP. He describes a "fascinating film that’s really a character study pretending to be a thriller." It ends up testing the idea that Americans don't like change. "And the result? It's sometimes ugly," Kennedy writes.
  • The film "tries to say something about the United States … without turning the audience off by calling out specific names or advancing an ideological position"—"but it's all so very vague," writes Manohla Dargis at the New York Times, suggesting the film sinks "under the weight of … good intentions." She argues Breslin was miscast and Damon's Bill was "a product of too much conceptualizing and not enough feeling." On the bright side, "Cottin, a charismatic performer whose febrile intensity is its own gravitational force, easily keeps you engaged and curious."
(Read more movie review stories.)

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