Review: Stillwater

Director Tom McCarthy gives the viewer every opportunity to offer his painfully thoughtful movie every benefit of the doubt, especially in the beginning when he introduces his protagonist, Bill Baker (Matt Damon), a laid-off oil worker from Oklahoma who wears the exact same working-class, middle-American garb every day. Based on messages dispatched through the movie’s overzealous marketing campaign, Baker could be easily pegged as a MAGA maniac, though the actual portrait is more nuanced. For one thing, Baker confesses he didn’t vote in the elections of 2016, and his troubled past as an addict and felon (the reason he couldn’t vote), which destroyed his family, gives him a tragic cast that overshadows whatever sociopolitical modifiers you are tempted to attach to his personality. So when Baker goes to Marseilles to visit his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), who is in prison for murdering her girlfriend, your expectations have not necessarily been set up to be subverted. 

If that were only the case. Matt Damon’s supposed turn as a red state neanderthal isn’t the only pre-release PR that misguides potential viewers. The idea that Allison’s situation is based on the Amanda Knox affair misses the mark by a mile. Though there are surface similarities, they have less to do with the actual crime than with the attendant tabloid publicity, and, in any case, the story is not about Allison, it’s about Baker and his redemption. Realizing a long time ago that he failed his daughter and perhaps drove her out of the U.S. with his neglect, he feels he needs to make amends by being there to help her with her appeal. The fact that he doesn’t speak French and looks like the kind of American who wouldn’t know a baguette from a bratwurst is used against him while simultaneously forming the bedrock of his self-determined identity, and Damon pulls it off.

But a movie that tries to get by on this kind of ironic scrutiny inevitably needs a ringer to prove its point, and so we have Virginie (Camille Cottin), a dyed-in-the-wool progressive single mother who works with immigrants and constitutionally refutes everything we are supposed to assume Baker stands for. They meet serendipitously, when Baker suddenly needs an interpreter and she just happens to be standing there. McCarthy practically ties himself in knots trying to bring these two together without resorting to outlandish contrivances, and it’s the obvious effort that makes the match less than credible. If you end up ignoring your better nature and find the resulting romance affecting, it’s because Damon and Cottin make it work despite the cliches built into their characters, and not because of the subsequent detective story to find out the truth behind Allison’s conviction. Whatever you want to say about Damon as a clueless representative of Hollywood wokeness, he nails the melancholy at the base of Baker’s lack of self-awareness, so when he comes alive to the possibilities of—for want of a better word—diversity, it’s almost touching. McCarthy counts on that revelation to deliver the bittersweet denouement, but I still had my doubts about the convoluted plot. If it was just about Baker and Virginie, I might have even choked up a bit. 

In English and French. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Stillwater home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Focus Features, LLC

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