The most enduringly striking aspect of Stillwater is the degree to which Matt Damon disappears into his role. Despite having one of the most recognizable faces ever, the superstar actor dissolves entirely into the goateed persona of Bill Baker, a blue collar, tucked-in flannel representative of the flyover states if there ever was one. It’s clear he has a troubled history with substance abuse, but is staying sober for the sake of his family and his faith. Bill’s wife is deceased, and his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) is currently incarcerated in a French prison. Bill doesn’t have much by way of income, but what he has he uses to visit his daughter. He believes she is innocent of the crime for which she’s been convicted, and is hell-bent on following every lead that can potentially exonerate her. He’s not Jason Bourne, he’s Jason born-again.
The film that emerges from this concept (man wants daughter back, but isn’t Liam Neeson), takes an alternate shape than one would expect. Stillwater is a patient thriller more concerned with strong character arcs than plot thrust, and for the most part it nails this goal. This is because much more of the runtime is devoted to Bill’s personal growth than the immediate tasks at hand. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a preponderance of plot to get through in order to watch his transformation, however. There is a romance, a father-daughter story, a legal thriller, a vigilante justice piece, and a fish-out-of-water dramedy, all spread out in equal measure across two plus hours. The good thing about all of this plot excess is that it works on a moment-to-moment basis, with no shortage of compelling information being illustrated at every turn. Unfortunately, this also means that the sheer volume of material has the film tripping over itself regularly, fudging the pacing any time it does.
But when it works, it works really well. Where Stillwater shines brightest is in its central romance. As Bill uproots his life to spend more time in France researching his daughter’s case, he forms a relationship with the charitable-to-a-fault Virginie (Camille Cottin, within whose eyes I am forever lost) and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). As Bill simultaneously unlearns and asserts his American ways, he sees in Virginie a mirror of himself. She too is a single parent, albeit in very different circumstances, and although her model of love is quite different from Bill’s, it comes from a similar place. The way each stands up to their own individual challenges resonates with the other. This might be Bill’s story, but to have a co-lead growing alongside, and in symbiosis with, our protagonist/audience surrogate, creates a fertile ground for lasting character work. In a film that is ultimately about assumptions and stereotypes, it shows a lot of empathy to and through its characters, which is of tremendous thematic value.
Plot-wise, the film often loses focus, jumping from the realistically brewing romance, to more urgent beats, many of murky ethical flavor. In a character sense, witnessing the extremes Bill is capable of, both good and bad, informs his actions quite thoroughly — I found myself cheering his kindnesses and wanting to yell at him any time he was about to do something dangerous or stupid. This is a sign of good writing, but the assembly of the material leaves a fair amount to be desired. In one moment we’re holding our breath as Bill greases shady palms for ill-gotten information on an alternative suspect in his daughter’s case. But before this is resolved, we move into more lighthearted fare, as Bill learns what it’s like to be a foreigner in a country that doesn’t bend over backwards to American exceptionalism. While not impossible to unspool these plot lines in tandem, the rhythm has to be just right in order to sustain interest in the disparate threads. That’s not always the case here — certain portions are left to simmer for so long that they’re easy to forget about. In one glaring instance, what should be considered a HUGE plot development — an attempted suicide — is glossed over in under five minutes.
While the oddball pacing/construction can be distracting, I admire director Tom McCarthy’s attempt to do something complicated with what could’ve been a much more direct, much less dense movie. Stillwater is very much not the film being advertised, and it’s better for it, warts and all. That said, folks who are enticed by the trailer won’t be disappointed in what is ultimately delivered, just so long as they can jibe with the off-kilter pacing.
The runaway pleasures here, as previously noted, are the performances. Damon disappears into his role entirely, while Cottin, a completely new face to me, gives the type of nuanced performance that exhibits a contagious humanity. Underserved, however, is Breslin. She does a wonderful job with the material, but is comparatively given little to do. Yes, she is the reason why Bill is on this journey; yes, her sexuality represents one of the many biases that is left simmering under Bill’s stiff exterior and in the background of the story; yes, her journey is at the heart of every single piece of plot…but she still feels merely adjacent to it all, rather than a core player. I would like to have seen more.
In the days since taking in the film, I’ve been ruminating on where it ends. Without spoiling, I’ll just say that the final moments of this dramatic tale are…complicated. The film lands in a potent gray area that defies the binary demands of message-minded audiences, and I applaud it for doing so. The world is a confusing place, populated entirely with people who are neither all good nor all bad, and it’s exciting to see a movie that not just recognizes this, but hangs its thematic coat on it. Or trucker hat. Yeah, let’s go with trucker hat. Thematic trucker hat.
Directed by Tom McCarthy
Written by Tom McCarthy, Thomas Bidegain, Marcus Hinchey, Noe Debre
Starring Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, Camille Cottin
Rated R, Runtime 140 minutes