Despite its title, Stillwater is a study in collision. It’s a drama about an American everyman confronting culture clash in France. It’s a father-daughter tale of resentment and redemption. Violence sparks onscreen and off. Then, there’s the perceived ideological clash between its maker, Oscar-winning writer/director Tom McCarthy, and its headliner, Matt Damon. All of this makes for a film that is fascinating, thrilling, and frustrating.
Damon stars as Bill Baker, an Oklahoma roughneck who is introduced working a thankless construction job, then caring for his frail mother-in-law. McCarthy swiftly paints a familiar figure of American masculinity. Bill smokes cigarettes while blasting American rock music in his pick-up truck. He wears boxy jeans, plaid button-downs, work boots, and a battered baseball cap as if it’s a uniform. He’s not a man who walks with swagger, but a stiff lumber, as if his back were made of a roughly chopped panel of wood. All of this makes Bill stand out like a sore thumb when he lands in the French metropolis of Marseilles. He’s aware but doesn’t care; the only thing on his mind is his daughter.
Allison Baker (Abigail Breslin) begins behind bars, convicted of a murder she swears she didn’t commit. Bill scrimps to visit her and do whatever meager chores she offers, like laundry or running a note to her lawyer. Still, there’s a coldness in Allison’s tone—a tone that starkly lacks Bill’s Okey accent—which signals she doesn’t trust him with much else. Through tight-lipped grumbles, Bill will eventually confess he wasn’t much of a dad when she was growing up. Unspoken is his deep desire to prove himself to her now, when she needs him most. So, when her lawyer says there’s no hope for her sentence being overturned, Bill turns amateur detective. Sure, he doesn’t speak the language, or understand the customs, or care much about any kind of consequences. But he’s American. He’ll forge a path.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Stillwater would be a cheesy feel-bad-then-feel-good drama, where a scrappy underdog battles hard and wins the day. However, McCarthy is known for character-driven dramas that speak boldly to politics, like the immigrant-focused The Visitor and Spotlight, which shined an unblinking glare upon the Catholic church’s child molestation coverup. Here, he uses the story of a determined American dad unmoored in Marseilles to illustrate the damage done by myopic American intervention.
At first, Bill seems a mild-mannered man. He’s quiet but polite with plenty of yes ma’ams and thank yous. When pushed or disappointed, however, he erupts into f-bombs and even outbursts of violence. Still, there’s a hand-dog charm about him, especially as he cozies up to single mom Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her young daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). One neighborly gesture with a splash of Southern charm, and this lovely local agrees to play translator for Bill. Before long, Virginie is his only ally in a world he refuses to understand, barging through in his quest without much concern for how it affects her or her child.
You might anticipate that with Damon in the lead, we’re meant to instantly root for Bill. But McCarthy complicates the audience’s connection to his surly American hero. Damon’s natural charm is played down. His brilliant smile is MIA, while his familiar, boyish face is hidden by a gruff beard. His performance is opaque, leaving us uncertain of what Bill believes or wants, beyond his daughter back home. When questioned directly about his politics—(“Did you vote for Trump?”)—he sidesteps, deflecting with an embarrassed personal admission. When challenged about how far he’d go to free his daughter, his answer is likewise ambiguous.
His inner monologue goes similarly unspoken. We are left to hang upon Bill what we gather from the clues of his character. But this could allow for two radically different accounts, making him as much a mystery as his daughter’s case. Is he a “good guy” so determined to do right by his kid that he’s tragically blinded by what wrongs he might commit along the way? Or is he a cagier figure, fully aware of how his actions and almost oafish charm impacts those around him, and thus manipulating others to get what he wants?
Here’s where McCarthy plus Damon proves a confounding combination. McCarthy has made films that unapologetically elucidate liberal politics, and while Damon has done the same (Syriana, Green Zone, and Promised Land, which he co-wrote, leap to mind), the actor has spent the past few years clouding his left-facing public persona by making tone-deaf statements—as a “father of daughters”—and tone-deaf movies, which have been accused of Asian erasure (The Great Wall), treating anti-Black racism as a gimmick (Suburbicon), and turning marginalization into a playful but problematic premise (Downsizing). Here, Damon plays a character that might seem like the affable everymen he’s played before, but there’s something darker in Stillwater. Whether or not Damon recognizes this evolution of his niche is another conversation. But for the context of casting, both he and Breslin are superb choices.
She was the adorable child star from Little Miss Sunshine. He was Good Will Hunting. We’ve rooted for both when they played lovable underdogs, but here we flinch as they bark and bite. Our expectations are challenged not only by fittingly grim performances, but also a narrative that twists into unsettling terrain, careening into a third act so radical that it feels McCarthy leaps to a different movie. The tone and content shifts from the patient character-dramas we’ve come to expect from McCarthy to something more akin to Denis Villeneuve’s crime thrillers. It’s jarring. Just as you might anticipate the film coming to a bittersweet conclusion, a new lead drops and pitches all our expectations out the pick-up truck window.
Frankly, I’m torn on this turn. Are we meant to be so thrown? Or has McCarthy miscalculated by veering hard into genre? Viewing the film as an allegory about American interventionism, Bill’s third act choices make sense as they baldly expose the kind of short-sightedness that has caused foreign devastation over generations. But does it make sense for his character to make such choices? It’s hard to say, as Bill’s mystery is never quite solved. Even as the dust settles, even as he breathes a heavy sigh and utters the film’s final haunting proclamation, we’re left to wonder.
Structurally and tonally, the third act is a challenge. But the longer I linger on it, the more I admire the risk taken by McCarthy (and his co-writers Thomas Bidegain, Marcus Hinchey, and Noé Debré). At a glance, Stillwater seems like a Clint Eastwood-directed drama, which would relish in a story of American heroism in the face of great adversity (be it enemy combatants or a fake-news-peddling female reporter). But like Bill, there’s much going on beneath the surface. Perhaps Damon and the crime drama are the lure that hooks you, maybe even a bait-and-switch. But what drags you in deep is the sinking feeling that snags in the final act. That’s where McCarthy has us wriggling in unease. That is where he leaves us. And maybe that’s brilliant, because we shouldn’t just be let off this hook.
“Stillwater” is in theaters Friday.