Stillwater, the film from Matt Damon, starts off with a little but pointed bit of misdirection, the delicate sort of diversion from expectations meant to say as much about the audience as it does the protagonist – something of an recurring motif for this film. Bill Baker (Damon) is waist-deep in rubble, his face visible yet devastated remains of what used to be someone’s house. Bill is a roughneck from Oklahoma, a state that has been repeatedly and tragically hit by tornadoes in Tornado Alley. His previous work consisted of oil rigs; when those employment dried up and he was laid off, he shifted to building. Because construction talents are simple to repurpose for demolition and recovery following a storm, Bill works in this area. He’s currently an inventor.
Despite the fact that a catastrophe has destroyed Bill’s home, he is getting his hands dirty in the ruins of a total mess, the wreckage of lives horribly unmade – another theme in production. It’s obvious early on that we’re meant to view the world of this film through Bill’s eyes, or at least right next to him. When he gets home from the destruction with some coworkers at dusk, they remark, “I don’t think Americans like to change,” and “I don’t believe the storm cares what Americans want.” They’re just speaking Spanish. When Bill understands, he doesn’t react; Damon’s face gives nothing away. Nor is the guy overly emotional soon after paying a visit to his mother-in-law, Sharon (Deanna Dunagan), and the two engage each other in naturalistic conversation that is full of ellipses that we don’t realize are ellipses because real humans don’t talk like this – and these people, the film is determined to impress upon us, are genuine individuals.
Bill is just as manic, and he’s quickly on a plane to Paris. To be specific, Bill lands in sunny, seaside Marseilles, despite the fact that nothing funny is at stake in the specifics of this venture. It’s early in the film yet Damon has already convinced us that Bill might be the guy the movie wants us to believe he is by virtue of his manic behavior. He’s a “Yes, ma’am” cowboy with an Okie drawl, eyes hidden behind his wraparound shades, stiff jeans, grimy cap, and a variety of plaid shirts bulging with middle-age fat and muscle that illustrate there’s little difference between a work uniform and daily life for this guy. He’s in France but doesn’t know how to speak French. When it comes to finding accommodations, he prefers a Best Western hotel. He is unabashedly but not quite crudely characterized as a so-called red-blooded American.
A fish out of water, and ultimately gasping for air. Stillwater, which was directed and written by Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), has been marketed as a thriller. However, it doesn’t start in the typical way. It begins this way: with a slow accumulation of facts, during which Bill’s apparent interest in oil refineries just outside of Marseilles may be overlooked; or that the hotel employees already recognize Bill’s name, making him appear less strange than he would appear to someone from France. This is an excellent fit for a narrative in which a feeling of being misplaced while becoming more desperate, needing to rely on others as one navigates utterly foreign cultural terrain, will be important; it’s the story’s main message in so many ways.
Rather, it’s a single point in the narrative. The other portion of the story is what got Stillwater into trouble, earning it the courtesy title “a calamitous reworking of a notorious murder case.” Bill isn’t visiting to have a good time; he’s here to see his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), who is incarcerated for murdering her French Arab roommate – a crime that has striking parallels to the 2007 murder of British exchange student Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy. This is a scenario more often seen in the context of a woman who has been wrongly convicted twice of murdering her lover – Amanda Knox, a Seattle exchange student who was sentenced to more than 20 years in jail with her then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, despite fingerprints from the real murderer, Rudy Guede, being discovered at the scene. In 2015, Knox was completely cleared. She’s no stranger to the town of Stillwater; she knows about its resemblance to her situation and isn’t pleased.
It is also true that the parallels are more than a matter of casual resemblance. According to McCarthy, the film began with the Kercher murder and Knox’s accused father was more actively thinking about it until the director became interested in additional aspects of the story. But even Stillwater’s growth beyond 2007’s tragedy and aftermath seems motivated by Knox’ s narrative, given the movie’s preoccupation with heroics – many of which were misguided in this case – of Knox’ s father, who was one of her most active and vocal supporters throughout her ordeal. The basic idea of Stillwater is that of a father who, having been given a note by his daughter and instructed to pass it on to her attorney, feels obligated to rescue her in the light of the system failing her. Allison receives word that she wants her lawyer to look into something: a guy has allegedly confessed to murdering someone, and it appears similar to the crime for which she’s incarcerated. Bill’s attorney deems the tip hearsay, and she advises him to follow suit. Bill steps in instead, launching his own investigation; he can’t afford the private investigator that was suggested to him. Furthermore, he has some making up to do with his child. Their relationship from the start was not smooth. On the movie’s part, this is where a lot of creativity takes place.
The difficulties of Stillwater and, more important, the meat and bones of its narrative, are less about the Mercher-Knox story than about these inventions. Bill has his reasons for wanting to do what is best for his daughter at this time in her life, and it’s too little, too late for her. Bill is also thrust into the heart of a foreign culture in which he does not speak the language, which only adds to his sense of isolation; the film doesn’t miss its chance to fulfill on Bill’s being entirely, annoyingly misplaced. Bill, who now has to stay longer than anticipated, becomes acquainted with Virginie (Camille Cottin) and Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), who become his guides, English teachers, and well.
It’s also interesting in certain ways, due to Damon, Cottin, and Siauvaud’s performance, as well as the simple intrigue of their game – she a French actress with far superior stage skills to Bill’s, he a hands-on kind giant with a past who did not vote for Trump (which he’s been asked). Nobody needs to point out: He would have voted anyhow. However, much of what interests the film appears to be that he would have had, which implies a plethora of possibilities for presumption and assumption on the part of the audience. When these ideas are set up and gently avoided with a sometimes effective veneer of human complexity, the movie understands precisely what it’s doing. Bill has a relationship with the local bar owner, who may not be as informed about Bill’s intentions. When Bill approaches him and begins to inquire, will the bar owner immediately start spouting off bigoted comments against Arabs? What sort of violence is this film leading us to anticipate when a white American with an Oklahoma accent goes looking for a French Arab twentysomething who has broken his daughter’s heart?
Despite his Cambridge-born, Harvard dropout origins, Damon’s performance is widely recognized for what people refer to as his “Everyman” qualities. I’d rather say that Damon’s magic is in creating a certain plainness, a near-anonymity, boldly magnetic. This is what makes him so effective in films like The Good Shepherd, where he blends into the movie’s furniture, and what contributes to the “Where’s Waldo?”suspensions of belief at the core of the Bourne franchise or the against-the-odds implausibility of The Martian. Stillwater relies on precisely that web of actorly ability and endearing likability; Damon’s second secret is to remove all traces of strings tying everything together, as if he were an CGI wizard and his own greatest special effect.
What this implies for Stillwater: A film that is complicated, moving, and accordingly vexing. You can sense it striving to paint the most thoroughly human portrait of not only its protagonist, but also the thorny issues surrounding him – such as tense racial tensions, sickening turns into Bill’s poor decisions. Mccarthy’s approach here, like in Spotlight, is one that avoids style. It has a blunted lack of visual flair coupled with a heightened attention to Damon (and Cottin’s!) centrifugal star power, which sometimes feels like a ruse for hiding how thoroughly controlled and calculating it is in its politics. When we first see him, his daughter is describing the woman who was murdered as their girlfriend to a reporter, and it’s clear that he doesn’t feel anything. After she finishes, her red-blooded, prayerful, gun-owning father calmly states that the phrase “fake news” has no meaning because by and large he doesn’t talk about politics. It’s up to us to assume homophobia from him; this is McCarthy’s sly genius: Our assumptions become more apparent as possible projections.
The deception is frequently successful for a time – until it isn’t. The film’s apparent realism at times clashes with elements that seem ludicrously ill-advised, such as its failure to properly interpret characters’ emotions following a suicide attempt, or an incompetent late decision to save someone’s butt that does not quite make sense psychologically or logistically. The movie’s meticulous attention to detail allows you to detect its mistakes and leaps of logic more easily. On the other hand, I believe that Stillwater’s consistency matters less to the directors than what the form has to offer in terms of a message; on this front, Stillwater is tellingly consistent. Damon and McCarthy have both spoken at length about their time spent in Oklahoma among real-life riggers earning their trust, learning their methods, gaining confidence in people’s goodness, and so forth.
The realism isn’t simply there for the sake of it. However, this isn’t always as simple as it seems. What Stillwater encourages are genuine instances of reflection, particularly for and about a guy in Bill’s position. The connections drawn between anti-Arab sentiment in both France and the United States are ripe for examination, to put it mildly, because of who Bill is. To rely too heavily on this theme would be to destroy Bill’s enigmatic intricacy – ironic, that is, if you consider how people might write him off. But the film is interested in Bill’s complexity to such a degree that everyone else gets shortchanged. When Bill’s bullheaded, indiscreet forays into a complex criminal network that the film depicts as something like the Marseilles slums, subservient to old norms of snitching and the like, erupt in violence – the big takeaway being a reiteration of Bill simply not understanding how to navigate a location like this, with an undertone implying that he is simply too ignorant to question all of the racial stereotypes accumulating by the second.
Bill’s character arc leads up to a conclusion in which he makes a horrible, ill-advised choice. He puts his career, livelihood, and possibly his freedom on the line. He ultimately confronts the consequences of making such a decision in relation to Amanda Knox’s story: for everyone else in this tale, of deciding to be so entirely committed to Bill, so exclusively dedicated to his wants and regrets and the quirks that make him more than a stereotype that the choice he makes somehow primarily affects us for what it implies to his life, his opportunities, when there is actually another individual who’s safety is at stake. A mistake is made; a rash decision is forced to an irreversible finish. The question this film can’t seem to answer is: who will be devastated?
In situations like this, it’s worth taking a step back and considering who the film is trying to tug at our heartstrings for, why, and at what cost. Bill’s decisions toward the end make us really feel for him, nearly causing the film to veer off-road into a rut from which it cannot recover dramatically. It works dramatically: the agitation we feel on his behalf is effective. When we look back on our own lives, it’s only when they come to an end that we see what has been left unsaid, how whose life is now less deserving of our attention and compassion. This is when the film makes a point of displaying – and paying for its lack of self-reflection over what it might have been.
Now playing on Cinema HD.
Directed by: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Matt Damon, Camille Cottin, Abigail Breslin
Distributed by: Focus Features
Release dates: July 8, 2021 (Cannes), July 30, 2021 (United States)
Running time: 140 minutes
Country: United States
Languages: English, French