Directed by Tom McCarthy.
Starring Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, Camille Cottin, Deanna Dunagan, Lilou Siauvaud, Bastien d’Asnières, Lea McCormick, and Moussa Maaskri.
A father travels from Oklahoma to France to help his estranged daughter, who is in prison for a murder she claims she didn’t commit.
Blue-collar oil-rigger Oklahoman conservative sounds like a considerable acting challenge on paper alone for Matt Damon, and it turns out to be a performance he nails in Stillwater, although far beyond for the cosmetic transformation. Director Tom McCarthy (the Best Picture-winning Spotlight) has also stuffed the experience with plenty of political subtext, layered characters, juxtapositions of life and culture, and a three-act structure where every stretch seems to be operating on its own wavelength while gracefully connecting to the larger picture.
The film sees Bill Baker (Matt Damon, in top-notch form) as a working-class man struggling to make ends meet. He now works in construction, is in some financial trouble (but can borrow money from his mother-in-law), and has a rough past with a bad habit of messing up his life. His daughter Allison (Zombieland‘s Abigail Breslin delivering a powerful performance for a somewhat tricky to read character, although could use a few more scenes in emphasis in areas) is also serving a jail sentence in Marseille, France, for supposedly murdering her girlfriend Lena, so it would also appear that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. As a matter of fact, one of Stillwater‘s most devastating pieces of dialogue comes from Allison labeling her father a “fuck-up” and that she would know because she is also one.
Nevertheless, during a routine visit after traveling to the European metropolis, a country Bill clearly does not fit in culturally or politically, Allison gives her father a letter (written in French, meaning he can’t read it). She tells him the letter contains new evidence that could potentially exonerate her, and that it must be delivered immediately to her caseworker. Bill obliges, except the judge is not interested in reopening the case unless a DNA sample is obtained that points to the existence of a college-aged man named Akeem, who Allison claims is the real culprit. Frustrated, Bill decides to take matters into his own hands by asking his next-door hotel neighbor and promising theater star Virginie (Camille Cottin) to translate the message. Essentially, it mentions a man that was heard drunkenly bragging about getting away with murder at a bar, ending on the note that Bill can never know what the letter says because he can’t be trusted and will somehow ruin things.
This is where Bill’s motives differ from the standard thriller, as he doesn’t just appear to be out to clear his daughter’s name but also off to redeem himself for being a terrible absentee father and proving those stinging accusations about him wrong. That’s not to say Bill believes his daughter is guilty, just that what’s driving him is slightly off-center, therefore making his actions a bit more unpredictable. With that said, his goal is still to bring his daughter home by any means necessary, even if it means communicating with horrifically racist private detectives that visibly shake Virginie to the point where she has to walk away. At that moment, Bill responds by saying he works with people that hold those horrible perspectives all the time back in America, triggering a culture clash between the two. There’s plenty of jokes poking fun at Bill’s nationalism (whether it be ridiculous tattoos or calling soccer players babies), but this is a serious dialogue exchange that says all kinds of complicated crummy, but true things about the world in an effectively hard-hitting way. It’s also one of quite a few scenes that accomplish such a feat.
In return for assisting with the investigation, Bill also elects to do maintenance work on Virginie’s new home while developing a sweet bond with her young daughter Maya (newcomer Lilou Siauvaud, turning in not only an impressive debut performance but a necessary one that holds the emotional weight of the story together). She pretends to know what he’s saying in English while teaching him an assortment of French words as he typically works in the basement. Their scenes together are often lighthearted and humorous but become much more dramatically engaging as the story unfolds with significant implications for what this new family dynamic could mean to Bill.
Around an hour in (Stillwater is nearly two and a half hours long yet always remains absorbing), the plot pivots (written by Tom McCarthy, Thomas Bidegain, Marcus Hinchey, and Noé Debré) from mystery into something much more quiet and freewheeling, with glimmers of hope for all involved. Whether the film resolves the truth of the murder or not becomes irrelevant, although some contrivances do wind up bringing things full-circle. There are juxtapositions to study ranging from America and France to the interactions between Bill, his locked up daughter, and the child he looks after throughout his investigation. The score from Mychael Danna also reflects these optimistic good times with catchy quirky music that brilliantly gets a reprise during one of the final scenes where life takes yet another turn.
There is so much to parse through here that Stillwater practically requires a second viewing to fully unpack its layers and depth. Still, a first watch yields a gripping tale of differences, second chances, family, meditation, redemption, justice, culture, and life itself without succumbing strongly to its thriller premise.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com