What does one do after their movie wins Best Picture? For Tom McCarthy, director of Spotlight, the next steps were clear: write and direct Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made for Disney+. And what does one do after they get that Disney money? Direct what they want to direct. For McCarthy, ostensibly, that’s Stillwater: a knotty, puzzling crime drama inspired by the wrongful conviction of Amanda Knox. Who knows how dark of a film we’ll get after Timmy Failure 2!

For the uninitiated, Amanda Knox is an American woman was studying abroad in Italy when she was falsely charged with the murder of Meredith Kercher, her roommate at the time. Evidence for Knox’s guilt was scant, but she ended up implicating herself during an interrogation, allegedly because police bullied a false confession out of her. It was a complicated situation—but that didn’t stop Italian media from whipping it up into a sensationalistic frenzy. The idea of the beautiful, young, violent foreigner was just too attractive a narrative. Obscuring the facts and borrowing lies, reporters painted the 20-year-old Knox as some kind of dangerous pervert. With the might of the international press against her, Knox was sentenced to prison for 26 years—but she only served four, later being fully exonerated by the Italian Supreme Court. With the might of the international press against her, Knox was sentenced to prison for 26 years. She only served four and was later exonerated.

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Stillwater switches up the details. Allison, studying abroad in France, is sent to prison for murdering her roommate; and despite her pleas that she’s innocent, the news media has its mind made up. The victim was both an Arab woman and Allison’s girlfriend—a lurid mix of sexual and racial politics that proves irresistible to the click-hungry. The most crucial difference is one of perspective—Stillwater‘s protagonist is Allison’s father, Bill. Desperate to help his daughter, Bill leaves the comfort of the Bible Belt and travels to Marseille, diving headfirst into the predicament without even speaking the language.

The fullness of Bill’s character is deserving of the utmost praise. In many ways, Bill is the ultimate American archetype: the kind of person that constitutes much of the country, bucking the imagined demographics of the terminally online. His defining features were chosen by the only life he’s ever known—a Christian, a conservative, an oil rig worker; brusque masculinity standing in for emotional fluency. But he’s not a champion for any one of these qualities. Barely cognizant of the cultural implications of his beliefs, Bill is a silent fixture of a heritage that’s dying around him. It’s a performance that demands internal turmoil—and Matt Damon nails it. From body language to vocal patterns, Damon’s performance is a full-on embodiment. It’s his best and most demanding work as an actor since The Informant! in 2009.

Behind the camera, McCarthy reteams with cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, who shot both Spotlight and Timmy Failure (through thick and thin!). McCarthy and Takayanagi are filmmakers who make it look easy—like they’re just pointing the camera at the action—but there’s a delicate intent to their work, like how Stillwater’s mood tends to dictate whether the shot is static or in motion. The film at large benefits from an understated approach. The style of co-writer Thomas Bidegain (The Sisters Brothers) is keenly felt: Stillwater moves with the rhythms of life, not as a procedural crime drama. It wanders through the case’s effect on the characters rather than investigating the case itself. The sweet, difficult chemistry Bill has with new friends in Marseilles; the different ways in which people grapple with (or overlook) issues of race, sexuality, and justice—that’s the real meat of the movie. The plot plunges into contrivances when the case heats up, but the big stuff feels incidental next to the personal.

This restricted, subjective purview makes Stillwater an antithesis to the media’s handling of the Amanda Knox case. Where news outlets jumped to sensationalize and accuse, Stillwater slows down and mystifies. “It does walk a dangerous line between inspiration and exploitation, and there’s a legitimate argument to be made that it engages in the latter. The film only works if you interpret its unstable relation to the Meredith Kercher case as an intentional distance from it. There’s a lot here to chew on. Its question mark of an ending makes sure of it—the tortured lovechild of the final scenes of Before Sunset and No Country for Old Men, it’s a bleak, quiet picture of the American’s chosen place in the world. It’s just as thought-provoking as the two hours before it.

★★★★   (4/5)