PLOT: A man from Oklahoma travels to Marseille to visit his imprisoned daughter, and ends up trying to prove her innocence by finding the man she believes really committed the crime.
REVIEW: In the wrong hands, STILLWATER could’ve easily dipped too far into one end of the political spectrum and been a nauseating experience. Centered on a middle-aged man from Stillwater, Oklahoma (Matt Damon) who travels to a foreign country and must confront people who naturally don’t trust him given he is, to them, a very specific kind of American, it would’ve been all too easy to make the whole thing one long, pandering exercise. But in pulling from his earlier low-key, humanist works like The Station Agent and Win Win, director Tom McCarthy instead opts for a character study that posits if a man from a small corner of this country so set in his ways can change his entire outlook on life.
In other words, this is certainly not the movie it’s being primarily marketed as. The recent ads and trailers tend to lean into the more straight-forward, thrilling first half, in which a construction/oil worker from Oklahoma, Bill Baker (Damon), heads to France to visit his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin) – who is in jail after being convicted of killing her girlfriend while studying abroad – and then decides to prove her innocent on his own. This initial act plays out not unlike a typical investigative thriller, in which a fish-out-of-water who stands out like a sore thumb follows the clues that may lead to his daughter’s innocence. This chunk of the movie delivers exactly what the bulk of the trailers promise – but even still – McCarthy’s eye mines more depth from the script (he shares credit Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noé Debré), and hints from the earliest moments this is hardly about the case, and more about the man trying to solve it.
Voicing him with a less-flourished version of his Texas accent in True Grit, Damon’s Baker is a man who has no problem keeping things just the way they are in his life. He works whatever job he can get on construction sites or on oil rigs; he wears the same kinds of clothes and the same hat; he eats dinner from local fast food joints and; carries around the same iPod Mini that’s older than some of the people who will see this movie in theaters. His visits to his daughter are about as different and exciting as his life gets, and even them surrounded by a whole new world of cuisine and culture does nothing to explore it and brings home takeout from Subway to his hotel. His desire to prove his daughter’s innocence comes not just from a sense of fatherly duty, but as redemption to make up for years of being a general piece of shit when Allison was younger.
As he demonstrated with Spotlight, McCarthy is a master of weaving in character drama within the framework of an accessible thriller, and emphasizing how it’s the dilemmas of those characters that are just as, if not more, important than the playing out of the mystery itself. What makes his work feel so engaging is how, at many turns, Baker’s sense of no-nonsense steadfastness just makes everything worse. At one point, a local named Virginie (Camille Cottin) urges him to respect the cultural boundaries of Marseille, and his stubbornness and disregard for where he is and who he’s affecting don’t make him look heroic, but rather send him down a spiral.
As the plot thickens, you’re not watching a do-gooding father inching closer to saving the day, but rather a man digging himself deeper into a hole until he sees nothing he’s doing is helping, and that it’s time he accepts it’s either time to change or get out of the way for good. It may be easy to lump Baker and his personality into a specific political spectrum, but McCarthy and the writers take strides to avoid that (most noticeably so in one of the bigger jokes of the movie). Rather, he uses Baker’s Middle-American persona as a template to explore a man who has to accept that the way he’s used to doing and perceiving things is not exactly the right way, which is what makes this more an engrossing character study than a typical thriller.
To get all this across the movie certainly feels like its 140-minute runtime, shifting canvases in a welcome-ly surprising way. But it’s all anchored by Damon’s truly compelling performance. He does a fantastic job maintaining a specific tone in Baker’s speech, hardly ever elevating above a Mid-South-West directness, but with a few discreet changes that ensure his specific emotion in any scene never feels lost. He draws you into Baker and gives him a full arc by adding depth to what appears simplistic, adding subtleties to his physicality to show that while he hasn’t completely changed, he’s become more comfortable in his new setting by opening himself up to new people and ways of life. Surely he will get buckets of praise for her performance, and it’s rightly deserved thanks to how he makes such a commanding presence out of such an average man.
Those aforementioned new people are Virginie, a theater actor and single mom, and her young daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) – both of whom Baker grows closer to while he’s in his initial detective mode. While at first just his translator and a helping face, through them he lets his guard down and forms yet another path towards genuine growth. Cottin is vibrant and warm as Virginie, who while having her reservations towards his actions, always keeps her heart open to his cause and doesn’t take shots to belittle him. Siauvaud is adorable and loving, immediately seeing the good in Baker bringing out the best in him and lending between them a helpful dose of humor. Together they form a charming family unit, and considering the majority of the second and third act is centered on them and their dynamic, it makes so much easier to buy into how McCarthy uses their bond to explore the ways in which people impact each other, with the smallest moments between them leaving the largest impact. Even as more events come to pass that begin to take the story down a more predictable path, McCarthy layers on the suspense and drives home one or two heartwrenching moments.
Through Allison, we’re also supposed to explore a theme of hereditary behavior, and how the negative actions of a parent can trickle down to their children. While Breslin is great as Allison — hinting at a side of her that is not unlike her father while bringing out her unbreakable spirit and outlook — this angle doesn’t work as much as what else makes up the bulk of the movie. While it means to solidify one of the more impactful aspects of the finale, the landing feels a bit rushed and fumbled. There’s a real, insightful power to the way the movie as a whole examines how far a seemingly immovable object has come and the exploration around whether people can truly change, but McCarthy doesn’t quite stick the landing, and not every emotion feels earned by the end.
Touching on something I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of people who may walk away hating a lot about Stillwater. It could be the kind of character Baker, the shifts in storytelling/tone, or the sheer scope of its runtime. And those are all warranted grievances. But I walked away fascinated by all of it. McCarthy’s humanist lens, Damon and the supporting cast’s performances at that sell it as a small, effective ensemble piece, and the taut suspense that makes way for absorbing pathos all combine for richly layered thrills and drama that more often connects that misfires. If you expected a straight thriller, I say go in with an open mind, and if the runtime doesn’t wear you down, you’ll come out having a more rewarding experience than you probably thought possible.