Stillwater Surprises...Until It Doesn't
Stillwater isn’t quite what it appears to be, until it is. Directed by Tom McCarthy (helmer of Spotlight and The Cobbler - this falls somewhere in between) and designed as a star vehicle for Matt Damon, the film has made waves for its ripped-from-the-headlines story about a father who tries to solve the murder that his daughter is accused of committing while studying abroad. The Amanda Knox-esque mystery serves less as a frame than a bookend - a plot point that kickstarts the film and one it returns to in search of a satisfying ending. But in between, McCarthy and Damon team up for an alternatingly meandering and soul-searching portrait of a man who realizes his roots may not count for as much as he thought.
Abigail Breslin is Allison Baker, a young woman arrested and held for the murder of her roommate while studying abroad in Marseilles. Allison’s father, Bill (Damon), flies from their home in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where he’s been looking for work as a roughneck, and is quickly yanked into solving the mystery of the murder his daughter claims she didn’t commit. There’s nothing groundbreaking about this part of the movie - lifted almost directly from Knox’s experience in Italy, it’s grafted onto Stillwater with a technical proficiency that should please anyone who saw the trailer and decided that’s exactly what they want from the film. No frills, no surprises. Just a vigilante investigation with a measured pace, a few well-placed moments of climax, and an appropriate twist to boot.
Where Stillwater swerves - and it may or may not be to your liking, depending on your hopes for the film - is in its focus on Bill Baker’s life outside the investigation. Bill settles in with a local theater actor, Virginie (Camille Cottin), and her daughter. Time passes. His attention drifts away from the search for truth in his daughter’s case. He finds himself unwilling to pull himself from this strange community - one with which he shares little in common history or values, but where he nonetheless feels more at home than in Stillwater. The film delicately explores these concepts, and it gives Damon a character to settle into. He might have voted for Trump, but as a former felon, he couldn’t vote. We don’t learn who he supported. He owns two firearms, but he politely withdraws from a conversation about gun ownership with a few disbelieving French natives. He’s unapologetically American, but not in-your-face American. And as time goes by, he seems less and less sure of that identity.
It isn’t his best performance, but Damon takes on the role with gusto. For one of the most recognizable movie stars of the last quarter-century, he ably loses himself in the character of Bill Baker - though his accent isn’t superb, it’s nearly the only caricature-esque part of him. Damon and McCarthy take the opposite tack that Spike Lee and Delroy Lindo took in last year’s Da 5 Bloods, purposefully refusing to address the history, beliefs, and tensions of a character that Lee and Lindo leaned directly into. There are too many differences to count between the two, but suffice to say that each approach was the correct one for their movie. In Stillwater, any attempt to either justify Bill Baker or change him would have fallen flat. McCarthy and Damon explore him, instead.
As it was always going to, Stillwater returns with a heavy hand to the mystery at its center. The resolution is fine, but it’s a thrill to watch Bill’s interactions with his daughter toward the end of the film. He’s changed - he knows it and she knows it, but neither will acknowledge it. It’s not the Stillwater way. In an aching final few minutes, Stillwater proves where its heart lies.