Something that becomes clear early on in Stillwater, the latest from director Tom McCarthy (Spotlight, The Station Agent), is that lead character Bill Baker (deftly played by Matt Damon) is not someone most of us would like to spend a great deal of time with, which doesn’t mean we don’t see promise in him as a human being. When we meet him, he’s getting off work at a construction site in Oklahoma, grabbing a fast-food burger for dinner, and heading home to pack for a flight the next day. It turns out that Bill is headed to Marseille, France, to visit his estranged daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), who is in prison for a murder she says she did not commit, under circumstances that would lead us to believe her.
The victim in question was Allison’s live-in girlfriend, Lina, and Allison and her lawyers seemed to believe that the narrative of an American lesbian killing her lover was too good a story for the French courts not to convict her. On this particular visit, Allison has picked up what she believes is a useful piece of information that may help lead investigators to the real killer, someone who stole her keys and got into the girls’ apartment while Allison was out, killing Lina. Bill brings this new detail to Allison’s lawyer, who says it’s not enough to reopen the case. But rather than simply give up and go back to America, Bill decides to investigate the lead himself, taking him through parts of the city where a white American southerner might be less than welcome.
In one of his best performances in years, Damon walks into each new situation a little too puffed up and confused about why the rest of the world doesn’t seem as straight-forward and simple as it is in Oklahoma. McCarthy doesn’t paint him as ignorant or dumb, just naive and not particularly eager to deal with the cultural (or even the language) differences that need bridging to accomplish even the simplest tasks. That being said, he befriends a local woman, Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her young daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), both of whom are fascinated and amused by Bill’s overt manliness (he’s a former oil-rig roughneck). But they also recognize that back in the states, he likely doesn’t hold the same beliefs they do. When a friend of Virginie asks Bill if he voted for Trump, he responds that he did not, because he’s a convicted felon and isn’t allowed to vote.
Over the course of Stillwater, a few unexpected things begin to reveal themselves. Bill ends up moving in with Virginie and Maya, and as he investigates this new lead in Allison’s case, and Virginie serves as his interpreter of both the language and Marseille’s cultural attitudes. She storms out of a meeting with a potential witness because he’s blatantly anti-Arab and is willing to point the finger at whomever they want him to if it means putting an Arab kid in jail. For a large portion of the film’s middle act, the emphasis is less about the investigation (Bill gets jumped and beaten badly at one point, giving him a reason to pause his work) and more about Bill’s life in France, settling into a new, happier life that offers him a respite from anything he’s ever experienced. He isn’t exactly a changed man, but the growth is noticeable and irreversible.
We also discover that Bill was a royal screw-up in his earlier years, and that his daughter learned her skills for misadventure from the best. Spontaneously moving to France with no notice was meant to be her attempt at setting her life straight. But in Stillwater (named after Bill’s hometown, a place—as the name implies—that doesn’t change), there are no easy answers or solutions. Through a stroke of luck, Bill runs into the man he believes is the real killer in his daughter’s case, and through a series of disturbing events and choices, Bill finally gets what he needs to reopen the case, but at a heavy price. The film does a graceful and agonizingly believable job of showing us a person who is so focused on doing right by this one person that he ignores his own best interest, almost as an act of self-punishment, like he doesn’t deserve to turn his own life around until he makes amends for being a terrible father. The final moments of Stillwater are almost unbearably bittersweet, but as we’ve gotten to know Bill pretty well during the course of the film, we’ve come to realize that he’s probably in a good place. For him, even a glimpse at perfection is better than no glimpse at all.
Stillwater opens in theaters Friday, July 30.
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