Having watched the trailer, I expected Stillwater to be an intense thriller about an American father traveling to France in response to his daughter’s murder accusation. Leading man Matt Damon is certainly no stranger to such roles, so I imagined there would be a fair amount of running, yelling, and last-minute acts of desperation. Instead, what I got was an understated character drama and honestly, I’m not disappointed.
Matt Damon plays Bill Baker, a currently unemployed roughneck (aka oil worker) living in Oklahoma. He exudes the outward stereotypes of a Midwestern American so one can imagine he sticks out like a sore thumb when he travels to Marseille, France to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin). Allison is currently serving her fifth year of a nine-year murder sentence. Having traveled here for college, Allison was convicted after her roommate/lover was found dead, although she maintains her innocence. Upon arrival, she entrusts a lead to her father, but upon learning the authorities won’t pursue it, Bill takes it into his own hands. During his extended stay in Marseille, he receives help translating and acclimating from a local he befriends named Virginie (Camille Cottin) and grows increasingly close to both her and her young daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud).
Truth be told, the premise makes this movie sound more exciting than it is. Director Tom McCarthy is best known for helming the Academy Award-winning Spotlight and even that journalistic drama did more to keep me on the edge of my seat than Stillwater. That’s not to say there are not some tense moments, but they are the exception. Ultimately Stillwater is less about Bill’s quest and more about Bill himself. Damon’s portrayal of this outwardly typical Midwestern is exquisite in its simplicity. It may be easy to overlook the brilliance of his performance, as Bill is a man of few words who doesn’t afford Damon any impressive monologues, but that’s what makes this character feel so real. Less is more in this regard as the entire cast makes it feel like we aren’t watching actors at all, but true to life people.
It’s that true-to-life authenticity I love about this film. Despite the stereotypes, Bill is not a caricature. Stillwater doesn’t make the mistake of romanticizing his folksiness or trying to turn him into some kind of idealistic ambassador for the Midwest. He’s an ordinary man who loves his daughter but is also a self-described “fuck-up”. He makes questionable to outright bad decisions but remains relatable throughout. The depiction of a character this genuinely human, while still being true to unique cultural attributes that many of us may not be exposed to in our social circles, I think is cinema at its best. It gives audiences a window into the lives of the kinds of people that we otherwise may not think twice about and, while fictional, still has tremendous value in what it can teach us about empathy.
Where Stillwater does falter a bit are the moments it transitions to feel more like your typical thriller-type movie. It’s not that these scenes are exceptionally unbelievable, but against the backdrop of a film that’s otherwise so authentic, it’s hard for these moments not to feel a little contrived. There is also an inherent risk in defying audience expectations. The run time is fairly long and while I appreciated the character drama that Stillwater turned out to be, others who didn’t expect this kind of movie may not be as forgiving. Ultimately, it’s a beautiful and courageous film about real human beings. It doesn’t sugarcoat the world or these characters, rather it challenges us to embrace their reality and imperfections and empathize with them nonetheless.
Synopsis: An Oklahoma roughneck moves to Marseille, France in order to help her estranged daughter beat a murder conviction of which she claims to be innocent.
Director: Tom McCarthy
Writer: Tom McCarthy, Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré
Stars: Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, Camille Cottin, Lilou Siauvaud, Deanna Dunagan
Run time: 2 Hours, 20 Minutes
I am an ASU honors graduate with bachelors in Political Science and Philosophy. I work as a Paralegal by day and enjoy casual, volunteer, and sometimes freelance writing on the side. I'm a long time movie buff and avid gamer. Collectible card and board games are my specialty. I also remain actively engaged in the world of politics and like to stay up to date on all things science. If there is one goal I have in life it is to never stop learning.