No point in pretending that Tom McCarthy makes entertainment. His filmography consists only of liberal messaging — The Visitor (open borders), The Station Agent (first-wave intersectionality), Spotlight (anti-Catholicism), plus other examples of the wokest, most obvious movies of the American independent-film movement.
McCarthy’s latest diatribe, Stillwater, may be his shrewdest contrivance, hiding politics behind an action-movie format. It places a Middle American oil worker, Oklahoman Bill Baker (Matt Damon), in the role of inadvertent cultural ambassador when he flies to Europe to save his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), who is jailed for a murder rap.
The red-state Yankee confronts Europe’s justice system, revealing his own small-town, small-minded biases. He’s positioned to learn from their superior continental egalitarianism.
Every angle of the film’s plot, including Baker’s interaction with a French single mother, Virginie (Camille Cottin), more or less pantomimes Obama’s 2009 apology tour — it prejudges Americans as burdened with bias and guilt. McCarthy’s illiberal perspective sentimentalizes Baker’s brawny defects exactly as you would expect of a film made by dishonest progressives who pretend to display residual patriotism.
Stillwater (named for the Oklahoma town from where Baker departs to Marseilles, France) revises the dated narrative of post-9/11, European-set films such as Taken (2008), starring Liam Neeson, which became a perfect expression of post-9/11 panic, frustration, and courage. But Stillwater is deliberately oppositional, as if the Taken action-movie franchise were considered way too conservative — and not sufficiently guilt-ridden. Essentially, McCarthy retrofits Hollywood’s George W. Bush hatred as Donald Trump hatred. (Details below.) Beefy, religious Baker represents Hillary’s “deplorables” and Biden’s “Neanderthals.” That Baker is the father of an American felon (a plot point that recalls the Amanda Knox case, in which the American student was accused of murder) adds an extra layer of condemnation.
McCarthy chose to mirror the Knox situation (rather than the American heroism of Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris) in order to reinforce the idea of America’s inherent failings, much as he did in his previous features, none of them as exciting or formally complex as the Eastwood film. McCarthy’s contemptuous liberalism is symptomatic of a cross-continental political derangement. (It’s as if George Soros’s Open Society propagandists took over the Europhile film productions that Harvey Weinstein used to distribute.)
But moviegoers who prefer to think about entertainment apolitically should also consider how Stillwater never measures up to the good storytelling in Taken, or in 3 Days to Kill, in which Kevin Costner played the avenging father-in-Europe role. Both Taken and 3 Days to Kill were written by genre-adept Luc Besson, a more sophisticated filmmaker than McCarthy. McCarthy merely affects sociological seriousness by collaborating with French screenwriter Thomas Bidegain, the scenarist of Jacques Audiard’s 2009 social-justice movie A Prophet, a precursor to Hollywood’s blame-mass-incarceration trend.
Bidegain and McCarthy share the same hive-mind, encouraging each other on Stillwater’s nearly two-and-a-half-hour slog through both France and the U.S., with its post-9/11 guilt about Muslim immigrants (Stillwater’s subtheme shamelessly repeats A Prophet). These fellow travelers find their ideal target in Matt Damon, a good actor but a shallow ideologue who cannot disguise his own cultural prejudices. Distracted by the mission to make a red-state caricature, Damon condescends to Baker’s white American male style: His Baker’s steely-eyed focus lacks Bradley Cooper’s empathy in American Sniper. His bald-eagle tattoo stigmatizes him, unlike Vince Vaughn’s tattoo in Brawl in Cell Block 99.
Damon never achieves the sympathy necessary to convincingly portray an American roughneck or proud boy; the performance is ruined by calculated cynicism, revealed when Virginie asks Baker if he voted for Trump. The response that Damon/Baker gives refuses to countenance an alternative to Hollywood liberalism, and yet Baker incriminates himself, literally.
McCarthy, Damon, and Bidegain also incriminate themselves. The apologetic American self-hatred in Stillwater is an ideological prison.