BAXTER — A New England actor playing an Oklahoman in France who is trying to exonerate his on-screen daughter of murder has a certain undeniable “je ne sais quoi” appeal to it.
Oscar-winner Matt Damon stars in “Stillwater” as an unemployed oil-rig roughneck attempting to free his estranged daughter from a prison in Marseille by providing reasonable doubt.
“Confronted with language barriers, cultural differences and a complicated legal system, he soon builds a new life for himself as he makes it his personal mission to exonerate her,” according to the spot-on description by the filmmakers of the new release.
Damon convincingly and astonishingly embodies the rough-and-tumble persona of a down-and-out blue-collar worker in the fish-out-of-water film by Focus Features.
“Stillwater” gets its name from the real city of about 50,000 in Oklahoma, which is used to establish Damon’s character, Bill Baker, before uprooting the audience and action to Europe.
Baker flies to France to visit his daughter Allison, a college student imprisoned for the past four years, who is played by Abigail Breslin, an Academy Award-nominated actress.
Allison was convicted of killing her lover, an Arab woman the student was living in France, and Allison has exhausted all her legal options or appeals in the French judicial system.
But a French woman and single mom named Virginie, who is played by French actress Camille Cottin, takes pity on the headstrong single dad attempting to discover the real killer’s identity.
Baker bumbles his way through Marseille during his private investigation, with a “where-there’s-a-will-there’s-a-way” mindset that’s both admirable and fool-hardy.
Personifying the “ugly American” stereotype of being “loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless, ignorant and ethnocentric behavior” in a foreign land, Baker makes little headway on his own.
But when he accepts Virginie’s offer to join forces, with her acting as the born-again Christian’s guide to Marseille’s seedy underbelly, that’s when the movie really comes into its own.
The mystery of who was truly responsible for Allison’s girlfriend’s death almost takes a backseat to the inherent drama of whether the estranged dad and defiant daughter can mend their relationship.
Baker confesses to being a less-than-ideal father who was absent in the young woman’s life and a recovering alcoholic who makes no secret of hoping to make up for his bad behavior.
“I'm trying to get my little girl out of jail -- that's all I give a damn about!”
— Bill Baker
“I’m trying to get my little girl out of jail — that’s all I give a damn about!” Baker shouts at Virginie after another incident when he bullies locals fearful of snitching on gang members.
The “stranger-in-a-strange-land” motion picture offers a cinematic rare glimpse into the seedier side of Marseille and touches upon timely topics like xenophobia and immigration.
But at the heart of the R-rated film playing at the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter is a father’s undying love for his daughter and the challenges he faces of earning it or risk of losing it.
Tom McCarthy directed the motion picture following his Oscar for best original screenplay for “Spotlight,” the Academy Award-winner for best picture, which he also directed.
“Spotlight” was about The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team, the newspaper’s investigative unit who uncovered widespread and systemic child sex abuse by numerous Roman Catholic priests.
McCarthy draws on his skill in helming that based-on-true-life movie from 2015 and takes that approach to make “Stillwater,” which is loosely based on the Amanda Knox scandal.
Knox spent four years in an Italian prison after being convicted for the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher, another exchange student who lived with Knox, who grew up in Seattle.
“Stillwater” currently holds a 74% approval rating among critics and a 72% approval rating among audiences at Rotten Tomatoes, a review-aggregation website for film and television.
The critics’ consensus at RottenTomatoes.com: “‘Stillwater’ isn’t perfect, but it's thoughtful approach to intelligent themes — and strong performances from its leads — give this timely drama a steadily building power.”