Bill Baker, the Oklahoma oil-rig roughneck abroad played by an excellent Matt Damon in Stillwater, is not a Trump voter, but you can understand why one of the women he meets in Marseilles asks him about it outright. It’s not just that he looks like a guy who might have voted for Trump, from his frustrated outburst about “fake news” and insistence of saying grace over every meal down to the particular style of wraparound sunglasses he favors. He embodies a certain instinctive obstinance, a habit of holding on to what he knows and only what he knows, no matter how much the world might change around him. While the people Bill meets in France tend to react as though they’re anticipating an ugly American, the truth is that Bill isn’t the kind of guy who’d go there at all, given a choice. He’s in Marseilles to see his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), who’s in prison for killing her girlfriend, Lina, while there as an exchange student. It’s a crime she insists she’s innocent of, and, five years into her sentence, she’s come across a tenuous new lead she asks her father to pass along to her lawyer, though he ends up taking up the investigation himself.
Stillwater is the new movie from director Tom McCarthy, and it feels like one he’s spent his career preparing for — an enthralling, exasperating, and, above all else, ambitious affair that doesn’t soften or demand sympathy for its difficult main character but does insist on according him his full humanity. McCarthy is best known for 2015’s Spotlight, which won Best Picture, but most of his work as a director has been devoted to the idea of battling back first impressions to get at the complexity of individuals. Each of his early indies — The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win — use a premise of almost-perverse hokiness as the basis for a subdued character study of enormous generosity. Stillwater is a sprawling realization of that same approach, teasing a tawdry international crime thriller and then offering, instead, a portrait of a man trying to make up for past regrets with one big swing and constantly frustrated by his inability to meet the standards he’s set for himself. Bill spends a good part of Stillwater looking for redemption, but the film is more interested in the idea of learning to live with your mistakes.
Bill’s relationship with Allison has been shaped by those mistakes, and we come to understand that she counts on him as her point of contact with the outside world without really trusting him. McCarthy started off as an actor, and he has a way of writing for great performances that seems counterintuitive at first because his movies are so averse to grandstanding or big monologues. But he approaches his characters like they’re iceberg tips, the bulk of their lives a submerged but solid presence that can be sensed, even if it’s mostly unseen. Details about Allison’s childhood and Bill’s drug- and drink-fueled absenteeism emerge slowly from both of them, and it’s clear that while Bill’s been showing up for her regularly, Allison wouldn’t be surprised if he stopped at any moment. He still thinks of a relationship as something that can be fixed rather than something that’s nurtured and maintained, and his eagerness to clear his daughter’s name (while lying to her about her attorney’s inaction) speaks to preference for the cleanness of action. For a while, his determination is effective, and Damon is particularly deft at showing how Bill’s doggedness works without giving the character’s efforts any fish-out-of-water cutesiness.
His blunt-force approach carries him forward until it doesn’t, and when Bill’s amateur detective work stalls out, the film takes a startling turn toward the domestic by way of Virginie (Call My Agent!’s Camille Cottin), a Parisian transplant who starts giving Bill translation help, and her ebullient daughter, Maya (the wonderful Lilou Siauvaud). Virginie is part of the local theater scene and has a touch of kamikaze do-gooderism that leads her to open her home to a relative stranger. Her Gallic bohemianism neither overlaps with nor lines up in opposition to Bill’s blue-collar stolidity. It’s her friend who asks if Bill voted for Trump and who’s briefly stymied by his response that he didn’t vote at all because his criminal record forbids it. If it’s never clear how much of a willing enlistee Bill is in his country’s ongoing culture war, the film is also aware of the fact that those schisms don’t export neatly. Bill, still scarred from the way Allison’s crime inflamed press attention because her lover was Arab and female, has no idea what to make of the way that a professor at her school casts her as a privileged American dating a poor girl from the inner city. But Allison didn’t grow up with money, Bill protests, and the man avers that she was nevertheless the one with power in the relationship and that “there is a lot of resentment toward the educational elite.”
Allison wanted to get far away from her father and from everything she knew, but one of the themes of the movie is that she’s more like Bill than she wants to admit. Stillwater can’t get away from its own origins either in the end, and after a delicate and lovely middle section in which the film liberates itself from any obligations to address the murder as something other than an intractable fact, it surrenders to obligations toward plot again. It’s a development that feels as inevitable as a visa expiring, with everyone having to take up the narrative that’s the ostensible reason the film exists, even if it feels artificial compared to what’s come before. At the start of Stillwater, Bill rides home from a post-storm cleanup job back in Oklahoma, and as two of his colleagues talk in subtitled Spanish, the audience is invited into a conversation Bill doesn’t understand. One man marvels at the fact that the destroyed houses are likely to be rebuilt just as they were. “I don’t think Americans like change,” the other observes, to which the first replies, “I don’t think a tornado cares what Americans think.” It’s a discussion that feels like it could apply to the movie they’re a part of, one that lays waste to expectations but ultimately can’t help but go back to the way things always are.
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