Stillwater opens with Bill Baker (Matt Damon), an Oklahoman construction worker, standing amidst the remains of a house recently destroyed by a tornado. He’s dependably good at his job, even if it’s just a temporary gig, something to hold him over while he looks for something more permanent on an oil rig. Money and work have been scarce for a while, and the tornado, without actually affecting him directly, puts a cruel accumulation of the litany of disasters — addiction, unemployment, family estrangement, a criminal record — that his life has become. He’s gotten used to searching through the wreckage; when he leaves town not too long after, it’s clear he’s not leaving behind much. Although it draws its title from this Middle American city, most of Tom McCarthy’s methodically understated drama takes place half a world away in the French port city of Marseille, where Bill finds himself on a curious and lonely assignment. He’s visiting his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), who’s spent five years in prison for the murder of her girlfriend, Lena, whom she met while studying abroad in Marseille.
Though it’s loosely inspired by events surrounding the 2007 killing of the British student Meredith Kercher, McCarthy and his co-writers are not especially interested in a straightforward retelling of that tragedy. Allison, the film’s Amanda Knox figure, has always maintained her innocence. With four years left to serve, she asks her father to contact her attorney (Anne Le Ny) with new evidence that might persuade the authorities to reopen her case. A teenager, Akim, has allegedly implicated himself in conversational hearsay, though it’s too flimsy a lead to persuade the attorney. But Bill, spying an opportunity to make up for his past negligence as a dad, stubbornly undertakes his own search for the elusive, possibly nonexistent Akim, all while navigating a city and a language that couldn’t feel more foreign to him. Centering its protagonist’s stern, bearded frown in nearly every scene, Stillwater registers Bill’s cultural confusion without necessarily indulging it. The movie effectively merges the patient investigative rigor of McCarthy’s Oscar-winning drama Spotlight and the cross-cultural humanism of an earlier film of his The Visitor. So basically it’s a somber procedural wrapped around a fish-out-of-water comedy, in which Bill is always the butt of the joke.
“I’m a dumbass,” Bill says more than once, and the movie, however sympathetic to his plight, doesn’t really contradict him. With a clenched jaw and plenty of plaid shirts, Damon strides through the film with a determined cluelessness that carefully pulls away any of the lingering remnants of Jason Bourne. Bill assuredly gives it his all, but the challenges of a murder investigation would prove daunting even for a local Marseille resident. Fortunately, Bill meets a friendly bilingual guide in Virginie (Camille Cottin), a theater actress who regards Bill with kindness, amusement and an almost sociological fascination. Virginie also has a winsome young daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), who naturally hits it off with Bill immediately, raising the possibility of a redemptive second shot at fatherhood. The mutually beneficial arrangement that follows — Virginie helps Bill with his search, Bill becomes her handyman and Maya’s babysitter — is one of those sentimental developments you grudgingly and then gladly accept, because the actors have such a warm, involving chemistry and because there’s something irresistible about the kindness of strangers.
The best passages of Stillwater allow that kindness to flourish and take center frame, temporarily liberating the movie from its dogged procedural template. McCarthy, a straightforward craftsman, has a gift for teasing out the humanity in every unshowy frame, and, working with cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, he nicely conveys the passage of time and the blooming of fresh emotional possibilities. Those possibilities become more tragic when Allison is allowed out on parole for a day, in scenes that Breslin plays with a tough mix of resignation and despair. Through her eyes, we see the Marseille that she fell in love with and briefly wonder if her crucible of suffering might also mark a potential new beginning. The filmmakers, of course, have chosen France’s oldest and most diverse city for a reason, given its longstanding reputation as a gritty hotbed of crime and poverty — a reputation that’s been partly fueled by the movies themselves, among them classic thrillers like The French Connection, Army of Shadows and the possible soon-to-be classic Transit. McCarthy has cited Marseille noir novels as an inspiration for his screenplay, which he wrote with Marcus Hinchey, and French writers Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré, who were undoubtedly crucial in fleshing out a persuasively inhabited street-level portrait of contemporary France.
It’s in those communities and during Bill’s search for a Middle-eastern suspect where he’s brought face to face with all manner of casual anti-immigrant bigotry. Bill, it’s worth noting, comes off rather better by comparison: He seems appreciably less racist than some of the locals, and if this devout Christian has any negative thoughts about his daughter’s passionate romance with an Middle-eastern woman, he keeps them to himself. His mission here isn’t motivated by religion, politics or ideology, but by the simple desire to bring his daughter home. Nothing could be more primal or understandable. Our sympathetic identification with Bill, in other words, is the reason this movie exists. It’s also a perspective where the movie gets thornier. This is the story, after all, of a white American man charging into a French-Arab community and attempting to grasp and run it as his own while attempting an aggressive pursuit of what he considers justice.
The standard defense against this criticism is that the filmmakers are smart and self-aware enough to have anticipated it. In this case they’ve also sought to defuse it by treating Bill’s narrative centrality as a point of subversion, a means of rejecting the myth of American exceptionalism that he represents. Bill’s outsider status, a source of pathos and comedy in the first two acts, threatens to become a moral liability in the third. McCarthy pushes the thriller narrative in directions more extreme and harrowing than plausible, bringing Bill and Allison’s story to an unexpected point of reckoning. It’s possible to be moved by that reckoning without fully buying the trail of contrivances and compromises it leaves in its wake. Even as its belabored with a succession of third act unevenness, Stillwater strikes notes of affecting somberness that can be hard to reject.
Stillwater is currently playing in Theatres nationwide, as of July 30