Tom McCarthy’s a talented filmmaker. “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor,” “Win Win” and “Spotlight” are all great. Hell, I even like “The Cobbler” more than the average bear. Matt Damon’s a talented actor. These two talented cats have collaborated for the first time with “Stillwater” (now playing in theaters). Do their talents mesh well or do they need to return to the drawing board? I’d honestly say it’s a lot of Column A and a little bit of Column B.
Damon stars as Bill Baker, an underemployed Oklahoma roughneck whose daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) has been imprisoned in Marseille, France over the past five years for the murder of her girlfriend which she claims she didn’t commit.
Upon Bill’s most recent visit to Marseille, Allison provides him with a new piece of evidence that could exonerate her. Bill takes this information to Allison’s attorney Leparq (Anne Le Ny), who chooses not to pursue it. Bill then takes it upon himself to chase down these leads and conduct his own investigation despite not speaking French. Aiding Bill in this pursuit is his actress neighbor Virginie (Camille Cottin, soon to be seen in Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci”). Virginie is sympathetic to Bill’s plight and he builds a friendship with both she and her young daughter Maya (the adorable Lilou Siauvaud).
“Stillwater” has been advertised like it’s the latest addition to Damon’s “Bourne” franchise or a riff on “Taken,” which it most assuredly isn’t. This is a long (140 minutes), slow and character-based film which has drawn a bit of controversy due to its parallels to Amanda Knox’s real-life story. It feels more like a movie from the 1970s than it does modern blockbuster filmmaking.
At its heart “Stillwater” is an exploration of the “Ugly Americanism” that got Donald Trump elected President and continues to make COVID-19 a problem. Despite being in Marseille, Bill opts to stay at a Best Western and incessantly eats Subway. (It’s debatable whether this is a matter of economics or preference – probably a bit of both as he’s shown ordering a foot-long Chili Cheese Coney from Sonic back in Oklahoma.) Bill’s asked by Virginie’s friend Nedjma (Naidra Ayadi) if he voted for Trump. (He didn’t as he was ineligible to vote due to his criminal past.) Virginie’s director Renaud (Bastien d’Asnières) asks Bill if he owns a gun. (He doesn’t own one; he owns two – a shotgun and a Glock.)
(I can attest that this is a real phenomenon. When I visited Ireland back in 2016, two Irish farm boys had two questions for this Yank – 1.) What do you think of Trump? and 2.) How many guns do you own? For those of you playing at home the answers are: 1.) He’s an asshole and 2.) None. The lads laughed at my second response as I wasn’t the cowboy they expected me to be. They even gloated that they had more guns than me to help protect their sheep from foxes.)
I didn’t find “Stillwater” in its conception (it’s written by McCarthy alongside Marcus Hinchey and Frenchmen Thomas Bidegain (co-scribe of Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” and “Rust and Bone”) and Noé Debré) nor in Damon’s portrayal of Bill to be a condemnation of the “Ugly American.” If anything it humanizes this archetype. Bill’s a fuckup (Allison tells Virginie as much), but his heart is in the right place even if his head isn’t. Bill’s the helpful sort – he stays in Marseille to help Allison, he helps Maya get a key to her hotel room when she’s locked out, he rewires Virginie’s apartment without prompting. Bill’s ethnocentrism is pared back the longer he stays in Marseille and in spending more time with Virginie and Maya.
There’s a lot to respect and recommend about “Stillwater.” Damon’s Bill stands alongside “Courage Under Fire,” “Good Will Hunting,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “The Informant!,” “Invictus,” “Behind the Candelabra,” “The Martian” and “Ford v Ferrari” as one of the best performances of his storied career. He’s ably supported by the immensely appealing Cottin, the darling Siauvaud and a gritty Breslin. Damon’s scenes with Siauvaud are easily the movie’s best and sweetest. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (who also lensed McCarthy’s “Spotlight”) shoots the port city of Marseille beautifully – a sequence depicting Allison swimming in the Gulf of Lion is especially exquisite.
Where “Stillwater” falls short is in its Turducken or Russian Nesting Doll nature as a film. It can’t seem to decide what kind of movie it wants to be so it attempts to be a few different types. There’s also a decision a character makes two-thirds of the way through the picture that’s excruciatingly idiotic, which totally changes the course of the narrative. This decision takes the story in a darker and arguably more realistic direction. A lot of these choices were brave or at the very least interesting ones for McCarthy and his collaborators to make, but that doesn’t mean I have to dig ‘em. Then again, they weren’t bad enough to derail all the good that came before.