For all the Hollywood films that focus on Americans being put in a position where they suddenly have to come to the rescue in foreign countries they are unfamiliar with, it’s nice to see one where things do not go as planned. Here, the tension is turned way down to tell a different kind of story. Stillwater may not be mistaken for a realistic look at how things work, but as a thriller that makes deliberate choices to subvert expectations, I enjoyed being led along that path.
Watching Stillwater, as it began to reshape its narrative, the most curious thing happened midway through. I began to feel comfortable, which fit with the warmth found in other films from director Tom McCarthy. Advertised as a thriller with familiar but intriguing stakes, I enjoyed how leveled out it became as it went on. I also like the way Matt Damon plays his character, Bill Baker, in this film. Allowing me to dig into this lived-in feeling provided by the film also made me upset that the story needed to go on, leading to certain contrivances. However, surely there’s a reason for skilled screenwriters to head down such paths.
Bill Baker begins the film as an out-of-work oil worker visiting his estranged daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), in prison in Marseille, France. Despite maintaining her innocence, Allison has been convicted for murdering her friend and partner, Lina. During his visit, some new information is brought to Bill’s attention. While Allison’s lawyer doesn’t have enough to reopen the investigation, Bill is ready to take matters into his own hands. Being a fish out of water, he befriends a French woman, Virginie (Camille Cottin), who aids him in his quest.
At a lengthy 140 minutes, this film takes its time to reveal what it’s truly about. Yes, the drive of the plot comes from Bill’s goals of seeing his daughter’s name cleared and getting to bring her back home, but things become more deeply explored on a character front. The thing is, Bill is not so great a guy, which he freely admits. He’s on a better track in the present, as he’s quit drinking and using drugs, but Bill is well aware he wasn’t a good father to Allison when she was growing up, and we’re left to fill in other blanks as far as his past.
Wisely, the film isn’t trying to judge Bill for where he comes from. Damon and McCarthy did the work by studying up on Oklahoma oil “roughnecks,” and while I can’t say how authentic the portrayal is, there’s a quality Damon brings out that’s effective. Bill is presented as a stoic but polite adult who says please and thank you without hesitation. He clearly has a temper, but only when pushed does it show. The man prays before every meal, and despite being in France, he would rather have a Subway sandwich than embrace the culture.
Bill is a red-blooded American, so naturally, the film has to find ways to peel back those layers and open him up. That’s what this surprisingly tender middle section is all about. As Bill forms a platonic relationship with Virginie and her young daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), the film moves toward a more fascinating direction that still feels organic to the story being told. Despite knowing almost no French, the way the bond grows between Bill and his second chance at forming a family unit of sorts is nicely portrayed.
It’s only when the film finds reasons to turn the story back toward genre that trouble begins to erupt. Certain events change the perspective Bill has on the new life he has come into by chance, leading Stillwater down a path that does not entirely hold together. With that in mind, it’s hard to say whether it comes down to the scripting or the direction. On the one hand, I felt uneasy about decisions that I knew would come back to affect certain characters. That’s deliberate, and one can see the appropriate response in the performances. However, the path to get to these moments may not be a cheat, but things do feel a little too perfect.
McCarthy is a strong actors’ director, and even with on-location filming and solid work from cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, Stillwater is more efficiently made than a standout visual effort. Given what this story requires, the directness of Eastwood would have pushed harder at the thriller elements to mine the tension for all its worth. However, it would come at the cost of better addressing some of the intended themes.
This is another area where Stillwater impresses while not quite doing enough. For all the excellent work on display from Damon, Breslin, and Cottin, the intended messaging is placed right in front of the audience, but the screenplay doesn’t quite land a bigger punch with it. By the time Bill is at a place where he can reflect on the journey he’s experienced and what he sees in front of him, I have no doubt he feels a certain way, and yet, I could have used more of an expression of what that really is.
Stillwater is not an unimpressive feature. It’s a well-acted drama, relying on the efforts of a movie star at the center to open up this story about a guy trying to do right after years of not. The resulting film takes a slower-paced but engrossing turn, only to find its way back to more conventional territory. It may come up lacking in how to best structure each of its elements, but as far as competent films made for adults go, Stillwater is a thoughtful effort.