In Tom McCarthy’s fish-out-of-water film Stillwater, oil field roughneck Bill (Matt Damon) relocates from the hardscrabble flatlands of Oklahoma to the graffiti-splattered urban puzzle of Marseilles to help free his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) from prison. It’s not an easy quest, given that Bill does not know anybody and barely communicates in English, much less French. Further complicating matters is Allison’s clear reluctance to trust him with anything and the utter disinterest of the French authorities in reopening her case.
In many films, this would be all that Liam Neeson would need to start pistol-whipping punks until he gets some answers. But Damon’s Bill is more limited to real-world physics. So when some punks who might have had something to do with Allison’s being in prison for the death of her girlfriend start beating on him, he throws a few punches but is ultimately mauled. Would that the rest of Stillwater had the inevitable realism of that scene.
As a well-meaning, crisply acted, and richly subtextual melodrama, Stillwater can be quite satisfying when its individual elements are considered on their own. Unfortunately, in the aggregate, many of them feel out of place. This is particularly true with the mother-and-daughter pair who essentially adopt Bill.
Virginie (Camille Cottin, a bright blade next to Damon’s stolid gruffness) is a theater actress with a thing for lost causes who volunteers as Bill’s translator while her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) is an adorably scrappy kid who views Bill as a sort of replacement dad after he moves in with them. There is an undeniable charm to how happily Bill takes to this role and a darker poignance as well, given what we discover was a fairly wretched record of fathering where Allison was concerned.
A lot has been made of Bill’s character as emblematic of a certain kind of grumpy and narrow-minded red-state dude. Damon deftly embodies Bill with both the git-er-done physical confidence of a guy who works with his hands and the nervously stoic insecurity of a man who dropped out of high school and wasted a lot of years drinking and being a self-professed “dumbass”.
While Bill is seen by some in Marseilles as an exotic specimen—“did you vote for Trump?” a friend of Virginie’s asks, while her pretentious director enthuses over Bill being a gun owner like he had just discovered Rousseau’s natural man in the flesh—McCarthy never treats him that way. The film addresses Bill’s cultural character head-on, making it clear that no matter how long he hangs around in a beautifully photographed Marseilles trying to run down clues that could help Allison’s case, he could not be less interested in learning anything about this city, country, or culture. But even though we see some growth in him by the end of the film, McCarthy doesn’t treat Bill’s perspective as any more of a character flaw than what we learn about his troubled past.
Where Stillwater runs into trouble is when it tries to yoke all these elements together into a plot. Drawing just enough from the Amanda Knox case–wherein she was imprisoned in Italy for the murder of her roommate–to be distracting and not enough to be interesting, the film pushes all its character work along through this somewhat haphazardly followed case. Bill, refusing to believe for a second in his daughter’s potential guilt, desperately tries to run down her one somewhat thin lead: a guy named Akim who supposedly admitted at a party to killing her girlfriend. This leads to his ill-conceived attempts to galumph through Marseilles’ immigrant neighborhoods showing Akim’s photo to a lot of people who, as Virginie tries and fails to warn him, see Bill and his daughter as wealthy interlopers no matter how blue his collar might be back in Oklahoma.
Stillwater is straightforward but not didactic about the unthinking privilege Bill carries with him and the damage that he causes. But the whole enterprise still sags under sentimentality. No matter how cute the scenes are with Bill en famille—and Damon, Cottin, and Siauvaud play them for all they are worth—McCarthy lets that part of the plot carry so much emotional weight that whenever he shifts the story back to Bill’s haphazard investigation plot, the gears fail to click back together.
There is a hint of unresolved tension in the too-tidy and yet disappointingly flat conclusion when it looks as though Bill’s eyes have been opened and won’t be easily closed again. More of that uncertainty (what was Bill really looking for over there?) might have made Stillwater into the thinking person’s mystery that it imagines itself to be.