‘Stillwater’ Examines Lives in Wreckage, With Matt Damon at the Center

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058_6201_D039_00231_R1627408647 - Credit: Focus Features
058_6201_D039_00231_R1627408647 - Credit: Focus Features

Matt Damon’s new movie, Stillwater, opens by building up to a gentle but pointed bit of misdirection, the subtle sort of deviation from our expectations meant to say as much about the audience as it does about the man at the story’s center — something of an running theme for this particular movie. When we first see Bill Baker (Damon), he’s waist-deep in rubble, the recognizable but devastated remains of what used to be someone’s home. Bill is a roughneck from Oklahoma, a state squarely, oft-tragically at the center of that mid-U.S. stretch known as Tornado Alley. His main line of work used to be oil rigs; when that labor dried up and he got laid off, he turned to construction. In the wake of a tornado, construction skills are easy to repurpose for demolition and recovery. So that’s what Bill does. He is, at this stage of his life, a maker of things.

Yet thanks to that tornado, he’s getting his hands dirty in the remains of utter mess, the wreck of lives painfully unmade — another theme in the making. It’s clear early on that we’re meant to experience the world of this movie through Bill’s eyes, or at the very least firmly at his side. When he’s riding home from the wreckage with some colleagues, at dusk, he overhears them saying, “I don’t think Americans like to change,” and “I don’t think the tornado cares what Americans like.” Only they’re speaking Spanish. If Bill understands it, he doesn’t react to it; Damon’s face gives nothing away. Nor is the man overly emotive soon after, when paying a visit to his mother-in-law, Sharon (Deanna Dunagan), and the pair engage each other in naturalistically terse conversation, talk full of ellipses that we don’t realize are ellipses, because real people don’t speak as if they know strangers are watching — and these, the movie is committed to impressing upon us, are real people.

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It’s not long before Bill hops on a plane, seemingly all of a sudden, and lands — in France. In sunny, coastal Marseilles, to be exact, a fact that lands with the force of a punchline, despite there being nothing funny at stake in the particulars of this voyage. It’s early in the movie, and Damon — a more than capable actor, whose physical commitment to his roles is, in contrast to his oft-touted ability to “disappear,” remarkably underrated — has already sold us on Bill as a man who could plausibly be the man that the movie wants us to believe he is. He is a “Yes, ma’am” type of guy with an Okie drawl, eyes often hiding behind his wraparound shades, jeans stiff, cap grimed with years of oil and sweat, and an array of plaid shirts, bulgy with hard-working, middle-age fat and muscle, that tells us there’s little distance between a work uniform and everyday life for this man. He’s in France but does not speak French. When it comes to picking accommodations, he opts for what must feel like a slice of home: a Best Western. He is pronouncedly, unabashedly, though not quite crudely, a so-called red-blooded American.

So, a fish out of water — and eventually gasping for breath. Stillwater, which was directed and co-written by Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), has been advertised and described as a thriller. But it doesn’t open like one. It opens like this: with a slow accrual of details, in which it’s almost easy to miss Bill noticing what appear to be oil refineries just outside of Marseilles, as if he plans to stay awhile; or the fact that the hotel workers already know Bill’s name, making him less of a stranger in a strange land than, to the French eye, simply a little strange. This is an apt choice for a story in which a sense of being out of place while increasingly desperate, having to rely on others while navigating utterly unfamiliar cultural terrain, is going to matter a great deal; it is, in so many ways, the point of the story.

Rather, it’s one point of the story. The other part is the stuff that’s gotten Stillwater in a bit of trouble, earning it the courtesy of being called “a calamitous reworking of [a] notorious murder case.” Bill’s not here for pleasure; he’s here to visit his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), who’s in prison for the murder of her French Arabic roommate — a case that bears an undeniable resemblance to the 2007 murder of British exchange student Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy. This is a case that is more commonly associated with the woman wrongfully convicted — twice — of that murder: Amanda Knox, a fellow exchange student from Seattle, who along with her boyfriend at the time, Raffaele Sollecito, was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison, despite the fingerprints of the actual murderer, Rudy Guede, being present at the scene. Knox was fully exonerated in 2015. She has, it’s no surprise to hear, heard about Stillwater, heard about the resemblance to her case, and is not pleased.

And it’s true: The similarities are more than a matter of mere resemblance. The film in fact started, according to McCarthy, with the Kercher murder and the accused Knox more fully on its mind, until the director, who co-wrote the script, became more interested in the surrounding circumstances. But even Stillwater’s expansion beyond the 2007 tragedy and its aftermath feels somewhat drawn from Knox’s story, given the film’s focus on the heroics — many of them, in the film’s case, wrongheaded — of the accused Knox’s father was one of her most diligent and vocal advocates throughout her ordeal. Stillwater’s basic premise is that of a man who, after being slipped a note by his daughter and asked to pass it along to her attorney, feels compelled to save her in light of the system failing her. Allison gets a tip that she wants her attorney to look into: a man, she’s been told, has confessed to a murder that bears striking resemblance to that for which she’s imprisoned. Her attorney, calling the tip hearsay, feels it would be wiser not to give the young woman false hope and advises Bill to perform in kind. Instead, Bill steps in and begins to investigate on his own; he can’t afford the private detective that he’s been recommended. And besides, he has some making up to do with his daughter. Theirs is a strained relationship from the start. So begins much invention on the film’s part.

The complications of Stillwater and, really, the meat and bones of its story, have less to do with the Mercher-Knox story in itself than with these inventions. Suffice it to say that Bill has his reasons for wanting to do right by his daughter at this stage of her life and that, for her, it’s too little, too late. He also needs help navigating the labyrinth of a foreign country in which he does not speak the language, in any sense of the word; the movie doesn’t shy away from making good on the promise of his being wholly, stubbornly out of place. Bill, now having to extend his stay way beyond what he’d planned, falls in with a single mother, Virginie (Camille Cottin), and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), who become his guides, his English teachers, and — well.

It makes for a satisfying film in some ways, primarily because of Damon, Cottin, and Siauvaud, and the mere curiosity of their playing house — she a French actress whose work in theater is way above Bill’s head, he a hands-on gentle giant with a past, a man who did not vote for Trump (which he’s of course asked), but only because, as a convicted felon, he couldn’t vote at all. No one has to say: But he would have. But much of what fascinates the movie seems to be the fact that he would have, which carries with it all manner of opportunity for presumption and assumption on the part of the audience. The movie knows what it’s doing when it tees these ideas up and gently circumvents them with a sometimes-effective veneer of human complexity. How will Bill respond when a bar owner he questions starts to spout off rampant anti-Arab comments? And when this story begins to boil down to a white American with an Oklahoma drawl hunting down a French Arab twentysomething who’s done wrong by his daughter, what violence is the film pushing us to expect?

It’d be more openly ridiculous, feel far more manipulative, if not for Damon’s performance, which — despite his Cambridge-born, Harvard dropout roots — is widely appreciated for what people insist on calling his “Everyman” qualities. I’d sooner say that Damon’s magic is in making a certain plainness, a near-anonymity, defiantly charismatic. This is what makes him great in spy movies like The Good Shepherd, where he practically blends into the surrounding furniture of the movie, and what makes the “Where’s Waldo?” suspensions of belief at the heart the Bourne franchise, or the against-the-odds implausibility of The Martian, so effective. Stillwater depends on precisely that matrix of actorly skill and unvarnished likability; Damon’s other magic trick is removing all signs of the strings holding the performance together, like he’s his own CGI wizard, his own best special effect.

What this means for Stillwater: A . You can feel it trying to paint the most rigorously humane portrait of, not only its hero, but the thorny sidebars of the situation he’s found himself in — the tense racial discomforts, the nauseating swerves into Bill’s bad decisions. McCarthy’s prevailing approach here as in Spotlight, his nonstyle style, its tempered lack of visual flare paired with its heightened attentiveness to Damon’s (and Cottin’s!) centrifugal star power, feels at times like a ruse for obscuring just how carefully modulated, even calculating, it is in its politics. We can’t help but notice that as his daughter speaks freely about the woman whose murder she’s accused of as being her girlfriend, her red-blooded, prayerful, gun-owning father, who deploys the phrase “fake news” despite by and large refusing to discuss politics, doesn’t even wince. It’s on us, the movie seems to say, that we’d assume homophobia of the man. This is the sly power of McCarthy’s style and intentions: Our assumptions become more readily noticeable as, possibly, matters of projection.

The illusion often works — until it doesn’t. The movie’s assured realism sometimes butts up against moments that feel woefully misguided, mangled in either the script, the editing room, or both — such as its failure to make proper dramatic sense of characters’ feelings in the aftermath of someone’s suicide attempt, or a late choice to save someone’s ass that doesn’t quite add up psychologically or make sense logistically. The movie’s attentive sense of noticing makes its flaws, its leaps in logic, easier to notice. But this seems to matter less to the filmmakers than what the style has to offer the movie in terms of a message; on this front, Stillwater is tellingly consistent. Damon and McCarthy have both spoken at length about the time they spent in Oklahoma, among real-life roughnecks, earning their trust, learning their ways, feeling more confident in the goodness of the world, the nuances in people, thanks to the lessons learned and memories shared. (“It was truly intellectually exciting and engaging,” McCarthy has said, astonished to the point of near-condescension. “I was impressed by them on a lot of levels. Truly impressed by them.”)

The realism is not incidental and not unsatisfying. But nor is it always as wise as it would seem. In the best case, what Stillwater encourages are genuine instances of reflection, particularly for and about a man in Bill’s shoes. The connections drawn between anti-Arab sentiment in both France and the U.S. are, by brunt of who Bill is, ripe for consideration. To lean too heavily into this subject would be to shatter the illusion of Bill’s ironic complexity — ironic, that is, for the people who’d be prone to writing him off. But the movie is invested in Bill’s complexity to the point of most everyone else, everything else, getting short shrift. A scene of Bill’s bullheaded, indiscreet wandering through what the movie depicts as something like the Marseilles projects, beholden to the familiar codes of snitching and the like that you’d expect of a scene set in the United States, ends in violence — the central point being a reiteration of Bill simply not knowing how to navigate a place such as this, with the undertone being a little less easily overlooked, a bit too slow to question the racial stereotypes piling up by the second.

It all — all of it, including the slow-building romance — leads up to a climax in which Bill makes a desperate, unwise decision. He risks everything. Ultimately, as in the case of its relationship to the Amanda Knox story, the movie can’t get around the consequences, for everyone else in this tale, of choosing to be so fully tied to Bill, so singularly focused on his desires and regrets and the idiosyncrasies that make him more than a stereotype, that the decision he makes somehow primarily moves us for what it means to his life, his chances, when there’s in fact another person who’s life is stake. A mistake is made; a rash decision is pushed to a devastating conclusion. Devastating for whom, is the question this film can’t quite face with the fullness that the question deserves.

In moments like this, it’s worth stepping back and asking ourselves who the movie is making us care about, why, and at what cost. In Bill’s case, the choices that pile up toward the end make us feel so fully for him that the movie nearly drives off-road into a rut from which it can’t recover. Dramatically, it works: The agitation we feel on his behalf is effective. Only when it ends do we realize what’s being left unsaid, whose life is ultimately rendered far less worthy of our sympathy and attention. This is when the movie shows us, ultimately and unabashedly, what it is — and suffers for its lack of reflection over what it could be.

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