Stillwater Synopsis: Bill Baker (Matt Damon), an American oil-rig roughneck from Oklahoma, travels to Marseille to visit his estranged daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), who is in prison for a murder she claims she did not commit. Confronted with language barriers, cultural differences, and a complicated legal system, Bill builds a new life for himself in France as he makes it his personal mission to exonerate his daughter.
Oscar-winning writer/director Tom McCarthy has never been afraid to take chances. Only a genuine risk tasker could release a heavyweight Oscar player like Spotlight the same year as a bizarre family dramedy like The Cobbler (talk about two extremes). Clearly, not every project of his connects, but his singular creativity and sincerity make McCarthy a bold voice to watch in the industry.
McCarthy’s latest Stillwater maintains a similar brazen streak. Meshing a “loosely” true story with a unique blend of genre inspirations, McCarthy strives for ambitious marks atypical of standard mainstream releases. The results, while wholly uneven, conjures a thoughtful twist on familiar Hollywood mechanics.
Marketers want audiences to think of Stillwater as a white-knuckle thriller, but that’s assessment doesn’t do the material justice. McCarthy’s narrative is a deeply humanistic one, with Bill’s relentless chase for justice consistently contextualized by nuanced developments. I love the way McCarthy leans into a vast pool of sociopolitical factors. Bill’s gruff and aggressively Americanized persona constantly clashes with France’s even-tempered populous, while the character’s backward class and racial perspectives only lead him down personal deadends. As Bill grows a comfort level in France with Virgine and her daughter Maya, he begins to view the world outside of his self-centered viewpoint.
Where most deal with black and white truths, McCarthy’s film lives in an amoral grey area. The filmmaker isn’t afraid to handle Bill and his other characters with brutal honesty, crafting a succinct character study that features genuine developments instead of Hollywood manipulation (Bill and Allison are never painted as heroes for their respective actions). I appreciate his attention for slight character beats over-sensationalized thrills. It’s the type of mainstream film that doesn’t get made anymore, with McCarthy building his patient 139-minute runtime to create a drama simmering with illuminating joys and sobering pains.
Stillwater’s varied complexions create a great canvas for the talented cast. Stomping through France with his burly presence and matter-of-fact folksiness, Matt Damon is nearly unrecognizable as Bill. It’s the type of broadly drawn character that could easily drift into caricature territory, but the actor imbues potent sincerity and regrets into his broken-down persona. Damon’s decision to build Bill through subtle choices rather than grand dramatic notes creates a protagonist fitting of McCarthy’s slow-burn narrative. Camille Cottin also shines as Virgine, developing a naturalistic rapport with Damon that sparkles in its own subdued frequency, while Abigail Breslin injects urgency into her few frames as the imprisoned Allison.
Stillwater develops ample goodwill during its first two acts, only to dash a good amount of it away with a bizarre finale. Whether it’s a byproduct of studio meddling or unsuccessful risks, McCarthy’s film dances towards the thriller sensibility that most of the narrative happily subverts. The big plot turns are certainly shocking, but they are never handled with the dramatic weight present during a majority of the runtime (there’s barely even a conversation addressing some of the questionable character decisions). It leaves a promising film feeling overbaked and oddly undefined considering its stark strengths.
I’m not really sure how audiences will react to Stillwater. It’s too meandering to please standard crowds, while the third act turn will likely divide fans of the patient build-up. Personally, I’ll always prefer over-ambitious messes to formulaic studio filmmaking. Even with frustrating inconsistencies, Stillwater’s moving empathetic streak and well-textured characters create a story worth losing yourself in.