Despite its rather mainstream pedigree (Matt Damon rarely wades into risky
waters these days) Stillwater is a strong and deep film with some unexpected
twists and turns. It effectively combines a mystery plot with a cross
continental fish out of water story. The film was directed by Todd McCarthy who
also made the excellent, but little seen films, The Station Agent (2003) and The
Visitor (2007). Spotlight (2016) was his big critical and commercial break
though, and it appeared on many end of the year
including mine. He also wrote the clever script for Up (2009), but he did not
direct it. Matt Damon is of course a huge star, and he has given many solid if
rarely groundbreaking performances in big, well-respected films such as Good
Will Hunting (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and Talented Mr. Ripley in 1999
which although it was decently done caused me to doze off . But Damon might be
best known for his leads in the critically well received and financially
successful Bourne film series (2007-2016).
What elevates Stillwater more above your average crime drama is Damon’s complex
character portrayal which falls somewhere in between the traditional role of
villain and hero. I think this may be one of the roles he will be most
remembered for, and he deserves credit for risking tarnishing his good guy image
for portraying such a flawed, morally ambiguous, and severely damaged person.
Bill Baker (Matt Damon) is a tough, Oklahoman widower who is the strong and
silent type, and he even has an eagle tattoo on his arm to show his patriotism.
He is definitely part of the America that Trump wooed and successfully got votes
from. He’s the kind of traditional, small town devout guy that prays even while
having a Sonic burger in a restaurant.
Damon takes some real risks in Stillwater, playing a roughneck, proletariat
protagonist who is not always likeable. By the end you might see him as a
villain. Although it is still early for award predictions, this performance
might get some love at Oscar time. Despite the characters’ intolerance and
narrow-mindedness about other races and cultures, Damon succeeds in making him a
flawed, full-bodied character rather than a caricature.
This quintessential ugly American finds himself in France when his daughter
Little Miss Sunshine's
Abigail Breslin) who was attending college oversees is sent to jail for
murdering her former lover. Although the real life, Amanda Knox was jailed in
Italy, the plot has many parallels to what happened to her. The film makers have
said that the film only takes the basic story idea from real life and
fictionalized around it, but Knox claimed that the film basically presents the
prosecutor’s version of the story. I think the film should probably be seen as a
character study or version of what could have happened rather than a definitive
depiction of real-life events.
Bill stays at the hotel, and by chance meets a sweet, bubbly young girl, Maya,
who ends up befriending him. Despite a negative first encounter, he also
eventually helps Maya’s mom, Virginie (played by Camille Couttin in a hard to
resist performance) by repairing some broken wiring. Virginie is very grateful,
and Bill could benefit from knowing someone who can speak French, so he quickly
becomes a family friend and frequent house guest.
Eventually, Bill becomes a surrogate father to Maya and they three become an
unlikely surrogate family. There seems to be a strong attraction between him and
Virginie even though they are complete opposites. She is very cultured, and part
of the experimental French theater scene, and Bill normally would not be caught
dead at any arty, hoity toity events, but he reluctantly goes to one of her
shows just to please her (of course he has a terrible time). The only hitch is
that she is involved with the pretentious director of the play, but he is not
serious, and the relationship seems like it will be temporary.
Bill enlists Virginie’s help in various little tasks related to proving his
daughter’s innocence as well as the seemingly impossible task of helping him
find the “tall light skinned Arab kid,” who was identified by his daughter’s
friend as the true murderer. Some of the people that want to help Bill are
bigots who just hate all Arabs. Bill seems to not be overly concerned whether an
innocent Arab takes the fall for the crime just as long as his “perfect,
innocent” daughter is exonerated.
So, will the eternal loser trying to turn his life around succeed in finding the
truth and freeing his daughter or will he be the author of his own disaster? To
reveal what happens would ruin the movie and spoil the film’s genuine surprises.
I can say that although Bill’s motives are noble, he takes some actions that
many audience members should find repulsive and reprehensible.
Although the basic setup plot of Stillwater is not especially memorable, the
film gets the most from its material, and it does a good job of capturing the
tensions that arise when disparate cultures and lifestyles encounter each other
and clash. Stillwater is not perfect, but it will probably give casual movie
goers much more than they expect, and it refuses to give in the audience
expectations to deliver a pat and predictable formula ending.