The highest praise I can offer for a Matt Damon movie is that it lifts you up, spirits you away from wherever you are to another and better world where you can completely forget how annoying Matt Damon is in real life.
In Stillwater, he’s a roughneck: a beefy old hand with a criminal past, a crusty trucker cap, and a bald-eagle tattoo. I was expecting another dumb message movie like Damon’s anti-fracking opus The Promised Land (2012), or at least a condescending portrayal of a Donald Trump voter. So I was pleasantly surprised that none of that is in the movie. Trump is mentioned, but only once, and inconclusively. Moreover, Damon disappears into the role, playing this guy exactly as he should be played: with a lot of “Yes, Ma’am”s and no emoting whatsoever. Bravo.
The film is a twisty little drama with thriller elements whose pleasures lie in not knowing where it’s going. Well into the second half, I couldn’t figure out what type of film I was watching. Is it an arthouse version of a Liam Neeson action flick? Sort of, for a while. Is it an unsentimental little redemption story, like Tender Mercies? Sort of, for a while. It’s also an American-fish-out-of water detective tale, like Roman Polanski’s 1986 Harrison Ford film Frantic. It’s not quite a potboiler and not quite a gritty Oscar-seeking movie, though its writer–director, Tom McCarthy, won the Oscar for writing Spotlight. Stillwater’s ability to keep even a jaded viewer off-balance until the final moments is admirable.
Damon’s character, Bill Baker, is essentially the dad of Amanda Knox, only this time the crime takes place in Marseilles, France, instead of Italy. Bill’s daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin, who despite her dozens of screen credits is still only 25), is an exchange student who has spent five years in prison after being convicted of killing her lover, Lina, in a spat. Allison insists she’s innocent, and she’s just found out there’s a man out there who has been going around bragging that he got away with the crime. There is no chance of reopening the case on a piece of flimsy hearsay, so, with no detective training and no ability to speak French, Bill decides to go ahead and find the real killer himself.
Bill sets out on the job as though it’s nothing more challenging than clearing rubble or digging a hole, tasks with which he is much more familiar, and the film draws a clever parallel between drilling for oil and drilling for the truth. McCarthy paints a wonderfully detailed landscape that makes Marseille look even dirtier and more sinister than it did when Popeye Doyle fanatically pursued Frog One in French Connection II, but neither he nor Damon plays up the almost-comical dissonance of watching this character push into places that even the average French person would hesitate to approach.
The element of the film that’s almost unforgivably farfetched is that Bill forms a strong connection with a middling theater actress named Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), who invite him to stay at their apartment while he gets a job working in construction nearby. Yet the film is so deliberately paced (two hours and 20 minutes) that the relationship develops organically over time, which helps build plausibility. After a while, it starts to occur to the audience that a liberal French lady who lives in a world of artsy guys who wear man-buns might be fascinated by a manly can-do American who, when asked whether he has a gun, responds, “Why wouldn’t I?” (He actually has two.) Asked whether he voted for Trump, Bill says he didn’t vote at all because of his criminal record. That seems like a copout: This guy exudes big MAGA energy. But we get the sense that, once Virginie gets to know Bill, his feelings about Trump don’t matter much to her. The movie doesn’t even try to push the idea that a 50-year-old Okie would be unable to handle his daughter’s homosexuality.
This is a major strength of Stillwater: Not only does it reject the usual Hollywood stereotypes about red-state America, it embraces the idea that we all have a shared humanity and shouldn’t demonize each other based on ideology. There’s a marvelously shrewd moment when we meet a racist French man who believes immigrants and minorities should all be locked up on principle. Virginie, disgusted, says she can’t speak to such a deplorable, but Bill, much less prone to having his sociological buttons pushed and hence much wiser, pushes back: There are all different types of people, he explains, and sometimes we have to work with those who disagree with us. The irony of Americans who define themselves by their supposed gifts for tolerance is that most of them have traveled so little that they don’t know that virtually every corner of the planet is far more racist than the U.S. When Europeans lecture Americans on our supposedly elevated levels of prejudice, the contention is as laughable as their ridiculous little Peugeots.
Believe it or not, this is a movie in which an American redneck goes to the most notoriously sophisticated country on Earth and teaches its citizens a thing or two about tolerance. Bill makes mistakes, but not because he’s a clod who doesn’t understand France. His flaws derive from very American attitudes about honor and justice, and by no means is the film unaware of what is admirable about them.