By John H. Foote
(***) In theatres
Matt Damon began his career wanting to be more than just a major movie star; he wanted to be an acclaimed actor. His breakthrough came with a trio of films beginning with the war drama Courage Under Fire (1996) for director Edward Zwick, followed by the critically acclaimed The Rainmaker (1996) for Francis Ford Coppola and peaking with Good Will Hunting (1997), which he and his childhood buddy Ben Affleck are said to have written for themselves. Good Will Hunting launched the actors out of the park as new stars, winning the pair an Oscar for their Original Screenplay and earning Damon his first nomination for Best Actor.
In the years to follow, he challenged himself with strong character roles along with movie star films. He was brilliant in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) as a serial killer adrift in Europe, a genius at taking the identities of his victims. A second nomination most certainly should have come for this performance but sadly the film was not seen by enough people by the time Oscar voting came around. He and Affleck reunited for Dogma (1998) for their dear friend Kevin Smith before he dabbled in franchise films such as the Ocean’s 11 series, and as Jason Bourne in an excellent series of films. In between, he flexed his acting muscles and proved to be among the very best young actors in modern cinema.
Excellent performances showcased his gifts including The Brothers Grimm (2005), Syriana (2005), The Good Shepherd (2006) and Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning The Departed (2006). His work in The Informant! (2009) was superb, and he was excellent in a supporting role in the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit (2010). Opposite Michael Douglas as Liberace, he gave a brave performance as Scott, lover of the famed piano showman in Behind the Candelabra (2013) for director Steven Soderbergh. Along the way he made Hereafter (2010) for Clint Eastwood, We Bought a Zoo (2011), a gentle family romance, the science fiction thrillers Elysium (2013) and the magnificent Interstellar (2014), before dazzling audiences and critics as a man stranded on Mars in the superb thriller The Martian (2015), earning another Oscar nomination for Best Actor. With The Great Wall (2016) as his greatest misfire, he bounced back with the mesmerizing Ford v Ferrari (2019) and has The Last Duel coming later this year.
In Stillwater he gives what might be his finest performance. He portrays a character audiences may not like very much, but Damon dives into the role nonetheless. Considering the political climate in the country right now, this is a bold piece of acting and Damon gives it all he has, fearlessly portraying the kind of man who boasts about voting for Donald Trump.
Drawing its narrative from the headlines of the Amanda Knox trial, which saw a young American girl accused, charged and tried for murder in Italy before being released and returned home, the film explores the fight Bill Baker (Matt Damon) has in trying to free his daughter.
An oil worker in Stillwater, Oklahoma, he learns that his estranged daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) has been arrested and charged with the murder of her lover and partner in France and is facing trial under the French penal system. Bill leaves at once for Marseilles where he learns that his daughter has all but exhausted her legal recourse and is facing serious prison time. Allison had instructed her lawyer not to contact Bill as she does not trust her father, but that doesn’t stop him from dropping everything to be at her side. She insists she is innocent, and her father believes her.
With a language barrier, serious cultural issues, and armed with the unpopular belief that is daughter is innocent, he finds doors closing on him everywhere he goes. His brash manner and aggressive style work against him, and the fact that he is seen as a Trump supporter doesn’t help. In France, the prevailing opinion seems to be that people like Bill, blue collar trailer trash, are the ones who put that maniac in office. Bill does not care what they think of him in Marseilles; he just needs them to listen to him and study the evidence. His gut tells him his daughter is innocent, and he always trusts his gut.
Director-writer Tom McCarthy, who won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Screenplay for Spotlight (2015), suggests enough doubt about Abigail to make the audience wonder about her innocence throughout the movie. Will Bill free her only to learn she has gotten away with murder, as many believe Amanda Knox did? The film is not as tight and urgent as Spotlight, but Damon is a force of nature as Bill, giving the finest performance of his career. This is no small feat for the actor because he was superb in The Martian, in which he was onscreen nearly every frame of the film. He is here too, and never uninteresting to watch—utterly believable in every scene. Like most fathers, he is willing to take her place in the prison, and certainly willing to fight for her life, but the obstacles put in front of him would be insurmountable for most parents.
Damon seems poised for another Academy Award nomination as Best Actor, well deserved for his ability to slip under the skin of the character and quietly inhabit the role. Along with Leonardo Di Caprio, he is the finest of his generation and an Oscar for Best Actor is in the cards at some point for him, if not for this.
Abigail Breslin has been working steadily since her Supporting Actress nomination for Little Miss Sunshine (2006) but the little girl we remember from that delightful film is all grown up. She gives a very good performance as a quietly terrified young woman who might go to jail for a very long time for a crime she might not have committed. Or she could get off for a murder she did commit. Camille Cottin is outstanding as the French woman who aids Bill in his quest to free his daughter and becomes good friends with him along the way.
The movie is not perfect, and at times it feels like an overblown Oliver Stone film in which we are being beaten over the head with the message. But Damon makes the journey worthwhile, every single step of the way. What a brave, brilliant performance! A nomination, at least, seems likely.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.