STILLWATER: It Runs Deep-ish

SpoilerFree

As I said in my mini-review last week (sorry for the delay and thank you for the messages of condolence about the loss in my family), this review was, ostensibly, requested by Nino Aldi, the film’s director/writer/producer/star. I can’t imagine how far down the internet reviewer hierarchy I am, so this was flattering, to say the least. But, enough about that, on with the show:

SUMMARY (SPOILER-FREE)

Stillwater-1Group.png
I refuse to believe none of them has a flask in this shot.

The movie starts with the police interviewing Willie (Paul Elia) about recent events. Six former high-school baseball teammates, including Willie, all now in their mid-30s, go on a reunion camping trip into the wilderness in Northern Minnesota on the Boundary Waters. On the way, Willie, a podiatrist, and Dawson (Tyler Ritter), his best friend whose marriage is ending, pick up Coop (Ryan Vincent), a self-centered womanizer. They meet up with military veteran Richie (Nino Aldi), Alcoholic Jack (Travis Quentin Young), and perpetually irresponsible Leech (Eric Michael Roy) who has brought along his Goth Drug-Dealing friend Wizard (Mike Foy) and Wizard’s girl companions Vera and Fauna (Georgie Guinane and Carlena Britch).

Stillwater-2Goths.png
Goths in the mist.

That night, the group takes a large amount of drugs and alcohol and wakes up to find that Coop is dead at the bottom of a cliff. They determine that it’s impossible for Coop’s injuries to have come from the fall, so one of them is the killer. The group is divided over whether or not to go to the police but ultimately decide to try and figure out whodunnit before calling the police. Slowly, paranoia and trauma start to work through the group, turning them on each other.

Stillwater-3BloodHands.png
It’s in the trailer, therefore not a spoiler.

END SUMMARY

So, it’s not the most original set-up: Friends are isolated, they find out that one of them may not be what they think, paranoia starts to drive them apart. The idea of mistrust causing people to betray each other is older than Lord of the Flies and has been explored in almost every way, but this movie manages to put a few new twists on it, particularly in the third act.

So, let’s go through the pros and cons of the film:

In the pro column, I think I first have to say that the music in this film is excellent. I noted it several times while watching the movie and I even made it a point to look up Bill Appleberry, the person behind it. It turns out that he is the person who mixed every song ever on The Voice for which Nino Aldi was a field producer, as well as the keyboardist on Kiss’s Psycho Circus, so it makes sense that he knows how to set a mood. In a film genre like mystery/thriller, where tone is so important, having good music is extremely valuable, so this was a big plus. It doesn’t have anything as memorable as the Exorcist theme, but it damn well tells you how to feel at any point in the story.  I also liked the song they used during the opening:

The cinematography is pretty solid, with a number of shots that isolate the characters or convey distance between them as they grow apart. Again, that’s something that’s needed in this kind of film. The setting is conveyed as being both beautiful and isolated, making it perfect for the events of the film. I also thought that most of the performances were really good. Actually, I should say instead that all of them were very good, it’s just that a few of them felt like they weren’t exactly all on the same page as to how exaggerated some of their traits should be. In an ensemble whodunnit, you really need the characters to be distinct (think Murder on the Orient Express or Hateful Eight) so it actually pays off to be a little more exaggerated, whereas some of these performances were underplayed for this kind of film. I do think that Ritter and Elia nailed it, though.

Stillwater-4Shadows.png
Shot in shadow while being deceptive. Worked for Welles, works here.

I’ll address the other big pro after the spoiler break, but it’s by far the biggest pro.

As to the cons, I’ll say that it takes the movie about 20 minutes to really get going and there is a HUGE amount of semi-awkward exposition at the beginning. I mean, there are a lot of characters so some dialogue that’s heavy on the backstory was inevitable, but it still goes a bit overboard. Now, after the movie really starts going, the dialogue actually starts being revealing without being overly expositional for a while, which only makes the earlier awkwardness more apparent. I think it’s this slow start putting people in a bad mood that probably hurts viewers’ opinions of the film. If I had been just watching this randomly and caught only the first 15 minutes, I probably would have turned it off and switched to The Third Man.

Stillwater-5Welles
I won’t apologize for loving Orson Welles.

A few other things: Some of the character motivations seem kind of random, particularly Richie’s over-the-top hatred of Wizard and its fallout from his PTSD. The decision not to go to the police seemed especially dumb, although I admit the scene of them literally picking sides was pretty powerful. The police station framing device, as I’ve mentioned at least once before on this site, is something I hate, even though it was at least used decently at the end of this film (unlike most others). The movie contains a lot of lines that are referential to other movies, but most of the references don’t really help elevate the narrative, they’re just there. Also, everyone gives Willie shit for being a podiatrist, which is weird for people in their 30s. Like, I get that they’re jocks re-living high school, but most of them are pretty successful, it seems, so mocking the doctor comes off a little disingenuous. If most of them were poor, then it would be jealousy, but here, it just seems arbitrary.

Stillwater-6Teams.png
The movie tells us who wants what… BUT DRAMATICALLY.

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

Okay, now for the big pro of this movie: The ending was great. Not only did it make sense, it actually made more sense than any of the other options. One of my notes from watching the film was that it seemed entirely possible that Coop knocked himself out while drunk/high and that the movie characters were ignoring that. So, when it turned out that Coop was actually still alive and HAD done just that, it was a wonderful moment of reality grabbing hold of the movie. To recontextualize everything that was done to be based on a false assumption turned the entire movie on its head. Then, it immediately capitalizes on that by pointing out that Willie, who had seemed to be the rational one, was an unreliable narrator and had, in fact, killed Dawson himself and conjured up Dawson’s confession as a way to get around being the one responsible for the entire series of events. It also calls into question whether Richie actually killed himself or if Willie did it and tried to imagine that Richie had committed suicide in a way that seemed similar to murder. Everything can be re-considered in that light.

It also explains why it seems like everyone gives Willie shit for being a podiatrist, since, in his mind, not being a “real” doctor led to the misdiagnosis that led to the deaths of his friends. They may not even have said much about it, but he interprets them as cruel attacks in his memory.

Honestly, if you watch the film knowing the ending, much of the film now makes more sense. With Willie being the one shaping the narrative, the dialogue is now what he is saying people are saying, not necessarily what was actually said. Basically, it shifts the whole film from an objective telling to a subjective retelling, and that makes some of the weak points stronger. Now, it doesn’t necessarily forgive everything, since a movie with a twist needs to work strongly on the first watch and still work on the re-watch now that you know the twist (think Fight Club), but any other ending probably would have dropped this movie down quite a bit in quality.

*END SPOILERS*

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the movie. It’s got great sound, some beautiful shots, a few solid performances, and a hell of a third act. Honestly, my notes at the end of the film devolve into various ways of saying “Holy Hell, that’s awesome.” It has issues, mostly in the First Act (to the point that I almost recommend just skipping to about 25 minutes in), but it’s still worth seeing if you’re a fan of the mystery/thriller genre. You can rent it on Amazon for $4 or through other sources at the movie’s website.

I’ve included my viewing notes for this one after the read more tag.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

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Notes:

Preliminary: 2 drinks. Additional drinks will be taken if/when I feel like I need them and will be noted. Rented the film off Amazon.

0:00 – Starting in a police station after the event has taken place. I’m obligated to complain about this, as I hate its use in any film.

0:01 – So, how many times have they heard this story and why doesn’t Willie have a lawyer?

0:02 – Okay, soundtrack starts with irony, but… damn, I like this song. And a bunch of exposition dumps to start us off.

0:05 – Exposition continues. But, there are a lot of characters, so, giving it some leeway.

0:06 – Seriously, the music for this is quality. The shots in the title sequence aren’t blowing my skirt up, although they are conveying the beauty of the location, but with the score, the vibe is actually coming through.

0:10 – Movie hasn’t really begun to movie yet, aside from exposition and telling us that Coop’s kind of a douche.

0:10 – He does look like a cross between Waldo and the Brawny man, but maybe don’t tell people your costuming secrets?

0:11 – Little more exposition, but, again, a lot of characters.

0:12 – Man, why is everyone giving Willie shit for being a podiatrist? It’s not that crazy to be a doctor.

0:15 – Strength in Unity, Unity in Strength: Catchy, but I’m pretty sure V for Vendetta used
“Unity through Faith”

0:16 – “The Wizard.” But he isn’t wearing a powerglove… Drink.

0:17 – Wait, the movie’s not about killing Leech? Because I feel like everyone wants to kill Leech. Including me.

0:20 – “Dead Mobster Number 4” is not a bad role in a Scorsese film, lady.

0:25 – Okay, so, we’ve had some character development through non-expository dialogue, relatable stories, solid soundtrack continues, and we have a set-up for why everyone might not realize a murder is happening. Movie has now officially started to movie.

0:29 – Hangovers look way more majestic by a lake.

0:30 – Coop’s dead. Since I am supposed to hate Leech, Richie seems too obvious, the goths don’t make sense, and Willie survives, it’s going to be either Jack or Dawson. I go Jack.

0:31 – Seriously, do you guys not know what a doctor is?

0:33 – Okay, so, we flashed back to the Police Station framing story. I guess it’s not just a bookend.

0:35 – If he fell while unconscious, like if he passed out while drugged, doesn’t that make it less likely that he would actually suffer any breaks? Or isn’t it possible he just OD’d and hit his head on the ground after walking down? Or hit himself and passed out from the drugs and the concussion? I don’t know, I’m not that kind of doctor.

0:36 – Dawson literally just said the best solution. Fauna asks the obvious question. Put them in charge and the movie is over in five more minutes.

0:38 – That experiment proves… not a ton, but okay, I’m gonna buy it if it keeps the movie going.

0:40 – THAT’S NOT HOW THE POLICE WORK. OR PROSECUTION.

0:43 – Okay, that scene, while misguided in purpose, was still pretty gripping. Rule of drama applies and I’m forced to suspend disbelief.

0:45 – Well, that was appropriately timed dialogue.

0:47 – And the Wizard conveniently has a gun.

0:48 – And Chekov’s gun doesn’t need to wait for Act 3.

0:50 – Okay, we’re just past the half-way point and I’m admittedly still interested in finding out what happened to Coop, so… mission accomplished?

0:53 – Wizard didn’t have a reason to kill Coop. No shit, why do you think Richie’s motives seem so weird about that?

0:58 – Dream chase actually does feel kind of dreamlike, so it felt okay.

1:08 – Jack’s drinking is recurring enough to feel like it needs to be more relevant aside from just being a character trait.

1:09 – Cool shot, but pretty sure everyone just needs to run away from Richie now.

1:12 – Okay, well… That was genuinely surprising. It feels a little unearned, but not completely out of left field, so… pretty good.

1:16 – He makes a solid point, but I feel like the officers will probably be able to confirm some of their story.

1:17 – Chekhov’s camera DID wait for the third act.

1:18 – Oh, dang. Dawson. I went the wrong way.

1:23 – You guys know the cops are right there. You just pointed it out. Maybe just let the guy who confessed to murder get justice?

1:26 – WHAT THE HELL??? WHAT THE FUCKING HELL??? WHAT THE GODDAMN HELL?? WHAT IN THE NINTH CIRCLE OF FUCK???

1:28 – HAHHAHAHAH, wait, so it WAS possible that the gash was from him passing out? Oh, my god, I’ve never been happier for a movie twist to be my half-assed joke comment.

1:30 – Ooh, nice use of the unreliable narrator.

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