Starring Matt Damon. Opens in theatres on Friday (July 30).
In Stillwater, a movie inspired rather than based on the Amanda Knox story, Matt Damon plays up the gentle side of Trump’s America.
Damon is Bill Baker, a beefy Oklahoma oil rig worker with an eagle tattooed to his arm. We meet Bill picking up odd construction gigs because the fossil fuel economy has no use for him. He’s also a recovering alcoholic and widower. One character describes him as a perpetual fuck-up, referring to past brushes with the law and the drama that led to estrangement from his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin). So in the early goings, Bill quietly rolls with a humble and solitary life, picking up drive-thru after work and saving it for when he gets home so he can sit down in front of the TV to say grace before fast food.
But the film from Spotlight director Tom McCarthy isn’t really about this gentle giant on home turf. Instead, it’s a fish-out-of-water narrative, plucking a red-state character from his element and sending him abroad, exploring how the rest of the world might find common ground with a white man from such a polarizing culture. How Stillwater gets there takes some bending over backwards: cue the Amanda Knox element, where the movie overextends itself into procedural territory.
Bill’s daughter Allison is serving time in Marseilles, convicted for murdering her roommate in circumstances that closely mirror Knox’s conviction. Bill travels to Marseilles for a visit, but soon gets drawn into a lone-wolf journey trying to sniff out the culprit that got away with murder and left his daughter behind bars. The real suspect, according to Allison, is a man of Arab descent from housing projects in Marseilles, which adds layers upon layers of class and cultural tensions to Bill’s bull-headed pursuit.
Scenes where Bill confronts young Black and brown men in concrete jungles has cowriter Thomas Bidegain’s fingerprints all over them. Bidegain is a frequent collaborator with French director Jacques Audiard, who often explores class and culture in genre thrillers like A Prophet, Rust And Bone, and Dheepan. You can easily imagine how Stillwater might have been initially imagined as a Bidegain-Audiard joint before it fell into McCarthy’s hands.
But the director has a hard time making the unconvincing thriller and procedural elements his own. Instead, they intrude on the tender and warm human drama, which is where the director excels. McCarthy made his name on unadorned sentimental fare like The Station Agent, Win Win, and The Visitor, which the more intimate scenes in Stillwater immediately recall.
Damon’s Bill Baker slowly forges a connection with a theatre actor and single mother named Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her precocious daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). For a big chunk of Stillwater, the procedural feels like a mere ploy to get a redneck from Oklahoma and an outspoken activist from the Marseilles theatre scene in the same room—and to see how the latter acclimatizes to the burger-flipping, gun-owning handyman who ends up living in her apartment.
That the relationship is deeply felt and convincing—not to mention distracting from the movie’s questionable thriller elements—is testament to McCarthy’s terrific work with actors. And of course, Damon is typically excellent playing salt-of-the-earth characters with a thoughtfulness and sensitivity so rarely afforded to them.
But there is also something funny about a movie that makes someone from Trump country relatable by removing that person from Trump country.