‘Stillwater’: Matt Damon’s All-American Performance Saves a Scattered Plot

Stillwater” features Matt Damon in a performance that says everything the movie wants to, but sometimes falls short of achieving. His role defines a specific kind of modern American. In a time of profound social divisions, it is easy to separate ourselves as a society into particular associations or stereotypes. Say “Trump supporter” and the immediate image that comes to mind is the Southern, Midwestern or rural citizen, who might drive a big truck and chug a six-pack. Damon plays that American, but with a sly complexity that defies generalizing. The story is obviously taking inspiration from the Amanda Knox case, where an American college student was imprisoned in Italy over the death of a roommate. The more intriguing angle deals with dropping a certain kind of American into the wider world.

Damon is Bill Baker, an Oklahoma oil rig worker who we first meet going about his daily routine with wide, rural spaces as the background. Bill then flies to France, where his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) is being held in a Marseillaise jail. She’s been imprisoned for a few years now over the mysterious death of her roommate after a strange night. Allison continues to insist on her innocence, claiming a mysterious young man she and her friend met at a bear earlier that night could be a suspect. Bill certainly believes his daughter, but the authorities and judges are unwilling to reopen the case. When a potential lead surfaces he decides to become his own private investigator. While wandering Marseillaise, with little grasp of the language or local culture, Bill meets Virginie (Camille Cottin), a single mom who works doing local theater acting. Without having planned it, Bill begins to adapt and moves in with Virginie and her young daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). Even as a domestic life begins to make him feel happy, Bill can’t let go of the obsession to clear Allison.

“Stillwater” is the latest from director Tom McCarthy. His 2015 “Spotlight” won the Best Picture Oscar for its dramatization of the Boston Globe reporting that exposed the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse. With “Stillwater” he remains within the zone of a journalistic style to his filmmaking. The very strong opening moments make you want to double check if “based on a true story” is anywhere in the credits, because Bill feels like such a plausible persona trapped in a believable situation. There is a documentary realism to his scenes inside the Marseillaise prison, talking with Allison and trying to maneuver around a place where he barely understands what anyone is saying. It is here where Bill is vividly established by Matt Damon, who doesn’t turn him into hero or villain. He is a rural citizen of the USA who isn’t close-minded, but simply forced to live in another country he never gave much thought to. If the average American barely knows much about our neighbors in Latin America, Europe can be another distant puzzle steeped in stereotypes. 

Bill is the center that holds what amounts to a movie that can veer different ways. While the plot is an Amanda Knox-style mystery, it doesn’t necessarily flow through much of the acts. At first the movie has a thriller feel as Bill starts snooping online to find the mysterious man Allison insists had something to do with her friend’s murder, even coming close in an intense scene where he wanders into a heavily-immigrant neighborhood. Then Virginie comes into the picture and “Stillwater” becomes more of a character study about Bill adjusting to life as a roughneck in the apartment of a bohemian Frenchwoman. These are pleasant scenes, very well acted, where Virginie likes Bill’s simplicity and southern manners. He’s very smart but limits himself whenever the topic of art or theater comes up (“I’m just a dumbass”). Maya instantly accepts Bill and tells him he’s her favorite American. It’s a bit corny, but McCarthy directs it with sincerity. If the movie had avoided trying to throw in a thriller angle that feels like filler, it would have worked just fine as a mini-biography. Subtly, Bill becomes someone living beyond his borders. He gets work with French construction workers no different than Americans, and drives his truck down Marseillaise listening to country music.

McCarthy keeps any political undercurrents even more subtle. One of Virginie’s bohemian friends asks Bill if he voted for Trump. He simply shrugs and explains he can’t vote because he went to prison. What his social or political stances are remain ambiguous. Bill always prays before a meal, and no one seems to mind. Another visitor to the apartment, a hip theater director, admits to Bill he would love to own a gun. Much of it works because of the chemistry between Damon and Camille Cotin. Culturally they should be opposites, but not as people. Both are single parents who have learned how to be independent through life’s rough trials. McCarthy doesn’t give the movie the tone of a romance. It feels more like two individuals finding each other by chance, through the intense circumstances of Bill’s situation with Allison. His faults are sketched in a very human way.  Bill isn’t beyond lying, not out of malice, but because he either doesn’t want to disappoint Allison when she asks if the judge will reopen her case, or endanger Virginie when he takes extreme measures to get answers.

The third act of “Stillwater” takes a sudden turn back into thriller territory with a dark twist that seems taken out of “The Secret in Their Eyes.” Frankly it feels unnecessary. Bill’s relationship with Virginie and his tense situation with Allison are all so well-established, McCarthy doesn’t need to throw in a selection from the “Law & Order” playbook. Maybe he entrapped himself with the very title of the movie, which is the word on a necklace Bill gave Allison when she first left on her fateful trip to France. How it turns up near the end is more screenplay autopilot. What remains is an excellent middle section between a strong opening and weak ending. There’s some redemption in the very final shot, where it becomes evident Bill’s time in France will leave him a changed man forever. McCarthy and Matt Damon have crafted a character that becomes more engaging than the mystery he is trying to solve. At its best the movie is all about him and not the clichés.

Stillwater” releases July 30 in theaters nationwide.