Will Matt Damon still hold the same lead man pull he once did in Tom McCarthy’s Stillwater, which opens July 30th, 2021 in this COVID inducing world? Inevitable comparisons of this film will be made to other message driven films, especially to other fare like Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land or Todd Haynes Dark Water, other recent studio films helmed by indie auteurs that have a lot on their mind in their higher budgeted studio work that keeps it away from being something than cookie-cutter with simple entertainment.
Flawed, contrived, overstuffed, but all around still resonant Stillwater, McCarthy’s humane drama is an exploration of culture clash and a redemptive chronicle on seeking justice. It’s a very well-acted film, even very moving in many areas, but overall it’s not quite the artistic achievement that it could have been. Arguably not as strong as McCarthy’s previous endeavors like his greatly impressive directorial debut The Station Agent, his 2008 masterpiece The Visitor, or his 2015 Oscar-winning Best Picture winner Spotlight. All 3 of those films were critical and commercial successes, and Stillwater certainly holds some great character depths and honest pathos with many greatly scripted exchanges and moments that pull you in emotionally. However, the film is plagued by a pat third act that holds a lot of uneven tonal shifts, forced contrivances, and some hollow detours that almost undermines the film’s first two acts of the film, which are absolutely wonderful.
All around an uneven experience, the film loses some of it’s dramatic momentum but still manages to keep its hard earned pathos, humanism, and compassion that’s in the first two acts in the film as the film falters somewhat towards the end. The plot twists take the film into more hollow direction and becomes more about a film about an individual trying to come to terms of the truth while being in a nation where you have no sense of control. Sporadically engaging, but as fully satisfyingly on a dramatic or political level, Stillwater comes across like an updated version of the 1982 Costra-Gavras political docu-drama Missing starring the late Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek that also holds a touch of Sidney Lumet with all the build-up of an ordinary man trying to gain some power in a foreign country where they feel powerless. The film also offers routine supporting characters, some half-baked political commentary, and of course some character arcs that are associated in a biographical drama like this, except Stillwater is an original screenplay that is loosely based on real events by journalist Amanda Knox who was acquitted after wrongfully being accused of murdering her girlfriend in France.
Greatly impressive in the first 90 mins or so, along with a great performance by Matt Damon who really shines here, in which he every bit as convincing and natural in as the everyday American that we have seen him in before with such films as Steven Soderbergh;s 2009 The Informant, and even Alexander Payne’s 2017 Downsizing. It’s a type of stoic role you can easily see someone like Bradley Cooper or Matthew MacCaughney play, but Damon is very authentic and convincing here as a blue collar oil rigger who travels to France on a mission to help acquit his daughter.
McCarthy’s film struggles to achieve something distinctive, and a point of view in the third act that just doesn’t work. Thus, it’s legitimate to ponder what the true payoff to Stillwater really is in the end? Sure justice is perhaps found, but at what cost? The film offers some cynical commentary of determinism, and other half-baked ideas on migration, bigotry, and other hardships American blue collar workers face in which McCarthy gets trapped in circling back on what story he’s actually try to tell. The end result is sadly an uneven, unfocused, and jarring picture by the end that is redeemed and anchored with its performances and many strong moments before the disappointing third act. Part domestic drama, with hints of a thriller that doesn’t deliver the suspense. The film is also in part a character study, and also a story about redemption. While deeply flawed–Stillwater no doubt leaves an impact upon viewing.
Damon is very strong here as Bill Baker, in which the film opens up with him cleaning up in the aftermath of a tornado. He is working with some fellow Mexicans who discuss how American’s don’t like change, “Things get destroyed, we just go back and fix it so it will get destroyed again” mutters a co-worker of his in Spanish. This immediately is a reflection of Bill’s own life: A widowed ex-con who just passes by and living day by day, living in a small house in which he prays to himself and watches TV until waking up the next morning and doing the same routine again.
Bill is saving up money, his mother-in-law is very ill, and his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin) is in a French jail after being sentenced for killing her girlfriend, a crime she strongly convinces Bill that she didn’t commit. Bill ends up visiting Allison while she is in jail, and tries to do everything he can to prove her innocence. This leads Bill on a journey in the streets of Marseille, looking for the real murderer who killed Allison’s girlfriend. As noted above, Stillwater feels like a 70s or 80s era potboiler character study, something like Paul Schrader’s Hardcore or Missing, a type of film we don’t see as much anymore.
Bill ends up encountering a local French woman he first meets at a hotel, Virginie (Camille Cottin,) a single mother and French theater actress who ends up agreeing to be Bill’s translators since Bill doesn’t speak French, as they join forces to question eye witnesses who were with Allison and her girlfriend the night she is murdered. Virginie also has an adorable young daughter, Maya (Lilou Siavaurd) who is adorable and a scene stealer that never feels manipulative. As the film unfolds, you wonder if Bill and Virginie will ever just fall in love as Virginie certainly cares about Bill’s plight to find the truth about his daughter, and Bill is a great father figure to young Maya–in which you can sense he is making up for lost times with Allison. Their scenes together feel predictable, but they work with its sincerity and the characters’ exchanges and dynamics evolve so beautifully.
Bill’s quest for truth also raises some questionable ethics on Bill’s perception and how he views the world. While many of the scenes are quite strong, McCarthy’s political subtext is quite poor. With the exception of some issues being raised, in which Virgine attempts to get answers from a man who claims he can identify the man who truly killed Allison’s girlfriend that night, he ends up referring all Migrants to “Invaders” and attempts to link Bill to Trumpism and American’s broken immigration policies in America that also lead to many Americans feeling xenophobic and resentment towards immigrants. In a key scene, Virgine’s friend asks Bill if he voted for Trump, and Bill responds “No, I’m a convict and I can’t vote.” and it’s left there. McCarthy tries to deliver societal ideas while also staying clear of it at the same time. Then the third act begins, Bill is at a soccer game with Maya and the film goes downhill from there with many twists and turns that feel jarring and all over-the-map.
Finally, there is some affecting closure at the end of Stillwater, and it ends on a very affecting note despite the third act cluster. Due to Damon’s understated and equally resonant performance–Bill is faced with the decisions and opportunity costs he endured. Going to another country can certainly change you, it can change your world view and perception in how the world and humanity functions. Stillwater is a film about the redemptive powers we encounter from the people we meet, the situations we face, and challenging decisions we have to make. It’s certainly a highly flawed film, but it’s rendered with many impactful moments that outweigh the flaws.