Entertainment

What critics are saying about ‘Stillwater,’ Matt Damon’s new movie

Read the reviews — good and bad — of the Cambridge native's new thriller-drama.

Matt Damon Stillwater
Matt Damon in "Stillwater." Jessica Forde / Focus Features

On the eve of its release, Matt Damon’s new movie “Stillwater” (in theaters July 30) received an unexpected review.

Amanda Knox, whose time spent in an Italian prison on murder charges serves as a loose basis for the plot of “Stillwater,” published a scathing criticism of Damon and director Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”) for profiting off of her “name, face, and story” in their new film.

The plot of “Stillwater” certainly resembles Knox’s situation as it follows an American father (Damon) attempting to free his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) from a European prison. Allison, who maintains her innocence, has served five years for allegedly murdering her roommate.

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During a jailhouse visit, Allison passes Bill a note that contains a thread of hope: a slim lead that may lead to her exoneration. When Allison’s attorney doesn’t bite, Bill takes matters into his own hands, charging headlong into a complex investigation despite speaking little French and possessing even less common sense.

Setting aside Knox’s thoughts, what do professional film critics think of the film? At the time of this article’s publication, “Stillwater” had earned a 71 percent freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Boston.com’s review of “Stillwater” called the film an “enjoyable throwback” while acknowledging it has multiple flaws. But in order to allow readers to sample a range of critical responses and make a decision on their own, we’ve also rounded up what critics are saying — good, bad, and everything in between — about “Stillwater.”

The Good

Kristy Puchko of Crooked Marquee gave “Stillwater” an A, praising its “frustrating” third act as a brilliant decision by McCarthy to leave the audience “wriggling in unease.”

“Structurally and tonally, the third act is a challenge. But the longer I linger on it, the more I admire the risk taken by McCarthy.”

Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle praised Damon’s performance as a career-best.

“Playing Bill — a roughneck from Stillwater, Okla. — Damon somehow suggests an entire belief system, a whole way of looking at the world. Little of that internal life is ever spoken, but it’s present in his pauses, in the way he looks at people, in the way his eyes convey thought. Damon is on his way to an extraordinary performance within minutes, and that’s before anything happens.”

Radheyan Simonpillai of NOW Toronto dinged “Stillwater” for its thriller elements, but gave kudos to Damon’s performance, particularly his chemistry with Camille Cottin.

“That the relationship is deeply felt and convincing – not to mention distracting from the movie’s questionable thriller elements – is testament to McCarthy’s terrific work with actors. And of course, Damon is typically excellent playing salt-of-the-earth characters with a thoughtfulness and sensitivity so rarely afforded to them.”


The So-So

Boston.com’s review of the film called it “20 minutes too long” with a head-scratching third act, but praised Damon’s performance and labeled the film an enjoyable antidote to traditional summer blockbuster fare.

“‘Stillwater’ can occasionally be a difficult watch. It does not hew to a conventional narrative structure. But in a summer movie landscape dominated by mass-produced, focus-grouped entertainment, viewers of a certain age may appreciate a reminder of how movies used to be made, even if ‘Stillwater’ isn’t the ideal example.”

Mark Feeney of The Boston Globe gave “Stillwater” two-and-a-half stars, praising newcomer Lilou Siauvaud for her performance but dinging McCarthy and the film’s other co-writers for its leaden pace.

“Lilou Siauvaud, as Maya, steals the show. It’s not quite August, but it’s hard to imagine there being a more adorable child in a movie this year. The quality of the acting makes it easy to overlook how increasingly leaden “Stillwater” becomes — but not easy enough.”


The Ugly

Kate Walsh of Tribune News Service criticized “Stillwater” for trying to merge two movie genres — the B-movie schlock thriller and the prestige drama — and failing. 

“McCarthy, and indeed Damon, in his stilted performance, would like “Stillwater” to say something profound about American culture via this Southern oilman’s journey as a stranger in a strange land, but all they can really muster up is a few lines about how the French are aghast that Bill owns a gun. The messaging isn’t nuanced as it is muddled.”

Manohla Dargis of the New York Times criticized Damon’s performance, calling the character of Bill Baker “a product of too much conceptualizing and not enough feeling.” 

“It is, as show people like to say, a committed performance, but it’s also a frustratingly flat one. Less character than conceit, Bill isn’t a specific father and uneasy American abroad; he’s a symbol.”

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