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By the trailer alone, Stillwater sells itself as fairly conventional kind of thriller: a recasting of the real-life Amanda Knox story, told through a lens of righteous parental vengeance. And in its lesser moments Tom McCarthy's drama does lean toward a sort of Liam Neeson implausibility. At its best though, it's much quieter and more unsettling than that — the slow-churn character study of a man (Matt Damon) who is arguably more lost than the incarcerated daughter (Abigail Breslin) he's so desperate to free will ever be.

Damon neatly disappears into the role of Bill Baker, a marginally employed Oklahoma oil rigger in stiff Wranglers and wraparound shades. He's the kind of guy whose thousand-yard squint and flying-eagle tattoos look like they were earned the hard way, but he also won't sit down to a sandwich without bowing his head for a proper blessing first. And nearly all the money he makes from his itinerant work goes directly towards trips to France — the same long-haul flight path through Atlanta, Frankfurt, then finally Marseille — to visit Breslin's Allison, a onetime exchange student now more than halfway into a nine-year prison sentence for killing her lover there.

STILLWATER
Abigail Breslin and Matt Damon in 'Stillwater'
| Credit: Jessica Forde / Focus Features

That the victim was a girl and what Bill calls an "Arab" helped make the case an international sensation; inevitably, the headlines have faded, but his hope of rooting out miracles in a byzantine foreign legal system remains. Whatever the allure of a city like Marseille — cobbled streets and seaside cliffs, the eternal siren song of French pastries — he moves through it in a blinkered bubble, checking into the same drab Best Western and taking home his lonely foot-long dinners from a nearby Subway.

A chance encounter with a bohemian single mother named Virginie (Call My Agent's Camille Cottin) and her young daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvad) offers the first inkling of real human interaction he seems to have had outside his brief and only marginally welcome visits to Allison. (He was not, it is heavily implied, a prime candidate for father of the year before her imprisonment.) Virginie turns out to be a godsend when it comes to navigating the intricacies of a country whose customs and language he can't begin to understand, though it's never entirely clear why such a lovely woman would do so much for a gruff and largely charmless stranger — "Refugees, zero waste… He's your new cause," a friend says to her, bemused — except for the fact that he is, you know, Matt Damon.

McCarthy, an Oscar-winning writer-director whose films include Spotlight and The Station Agent, generally crafts the kind of lived-in adult dramas whose unshowy intelligence belies the need for narrative shock and awe. So it's jarring when his script takes a soapier turn, swerving abruptly into not-without-my-daughter Neeson territory and away from the more patient, almost languid onion-peeling of its setup. Damon and Cottin sell the tone shift better than they should, and Breslin brings an itchy urgency to Allison — who even in her too-brief scenes manages to register not merely as a cipher or a victim of circumstance but a flawed, furious girl with her own hopes and agendas.

A lot will probably be made of Damon's foray into MAGA-Daddy drag, and it's a testament to his tightly coiled performance that Bill comes off as nuanced and sympathetic as he does: Though the intrinsic likability that makes him a movie star may be doing half the heavy lifting, you want to invest in this blunt, difficult man. McCarthy also embeds him so deeply in the daily rhythms of Marseille — the back alleys, grubby kebab shops, and sudden dazzling flashes of sun-dappled Gallic scenery — that the movie becomes a kind of immersive travelogue too. The unhurried rhythms of those scenes feel like their own reward, more compelling and true to life than any notion of third-act reveals or tidy cinematic endings. Grade: B

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