It’s hard to get a fresh start in life. It can be even harder to escape who we are in order to do so.
Set primarily in Marseille, France, Stillwater tells the story of Bill Baker (Matt Damon), an American roughneck who travels overseas to visit his estranged daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin). While going to school in France, Allison was arrested for murder, yet she has never waivered in her innocence. When Allison receives new information that could potentially reopen her trial, she asks Bill to speak to the lawyer about it. However, Bill decides to take matters into his own hands in order to find the person that he believes is the true killer. Bill engages language barriers, cultural differences and the French legal system on his quest to set Allison free. He also begins to be changed by his new environment and, maybe, build a new life as well.
Directed and co-written by Tom McCarthy, Stillwater is a fascinating work that ebbs and flows its tone throughout. While this doesn’t always work for the film (especially in the jarring third act), Stillwater still manages to spin a compelling web of intrigue. This is a part crime thriller and part character/family drama. McCarthy’s story seems like an unlikely mismatch of styles yet still comes together with an almost mesmerizing quality. There’s a joy and warmth embedded within this film that makes it compelling to watch. At the same time though, creeping shadows follow its characters in such ways that one can never fully rest peacefully with them either.
In fact, this same stylistic contrast even works towards the film’s overall thematic structure. Through Bill’s journey, McCarthy explores the type of cultural mashup that happens when American conservatism comes up against a world that has left it behind. While the film is entitled Stillwater, there’s shockingly little in the film that takes place in Oklahoma. Instead, the film shows what happens when the downhome ideals of Stillwater meets the more liberally-minded French culture.
Baker interacts with the local families. Thus, he becomes the catalyst for conversations surrounding issues such as race and sexuality that are far greater than the potential guilt or innocence of his daughter. To be fair, despite this collision of styles, the film never fully judges Bill for his lost sensibilities. (In fact, McCarthy even suggests that emotional growth can bring healing and hope.) Even so, the moments when Bill attempts to make sense of a world that he does not understand may be the film’s best moments.
In order to bring Bill to life, Damon’s work here is particularly unique. Though he often takes on the role of hero, Damon’s performance as Bill Baker feels like the antithesis of that. Although he has a certain charisma about him, Bill is a man of few words. Having spent much of his time in construction or oil rigs, Bill is accustomed to using his strength to fix his problems. As a result, Damon’s performance requires him to frequently hold back his famous smile and charm and allow his eyes to do much of the acting. However, it’s also some of his most absorbing work in years. Hidden behind his gruff exterior, Damon somehow make Bill feel but endearing and potentially dangerous. Although he has self-destructive tendencies, Bill is someone that you want to trust.
And, honestly, that’s what makes the film so interesting.
The most interesting aspect of the mystery of Stillwater is the Baker family itself. On paper, Bill and Allison could not be more different. While Bill is a beastly hulk who may have voted for Trump (if he’d had the chance), Allison is educated and informed. They rarely agree because they rarely see eye to eye on any particular issue… and, as such, neither fully trusts the other.
Still, like father, like daughter. Sometimes parents and siblings have enough similarities to be strange mirrors of one another and Bill and Allison are no different. They both are likeable and honest. And both father and daughter also believe that they have a self-destructive tendency that prevents them from allowing things to work out. Both of them balance innocence and brokenness in their characters. (“My father is a [screw up]. I have that in me too,” Allison confesses.) In some ways, these flaws make the film much more heartbreaking. In others, it makes it feel more real.
Yes, this may be a heightened drama but so too is it also an example of the flaws in us all. This is a film that highlights the mixture of success and failure that everyone has contained within them. Despite their flaws, there is value within Bill and Allison and, as a result, there is hope. Hope that they can get it together. Hope for Allison’s innocence. And hope that love can rebuild their lives… providing they can overcome the cracks in their character.
While the script makes some questionable decisions at times, there’s far more to like about Stillwater than otherwise. By moving the rural South onto foreign soil, McCarthy tells a story that speaks to our current cultural moment while unravelling a wild mystery as well. Led by some solid work by Damon, Stillwater feels like a peaceful ride. However, there remain unanswered questions below the surface that keep things swirling and make this trip even more compelling.
Stillwater is available in theatres on Friday, July 30th, 2021.