Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. It often stands in direct opposition to fate, the acceptance of our reality determined by things not seen that may suggest a semi-negative endgame outcome. For Bill Baker (Matt Damon), he isn’t ready to let fate win. A oil-rig worker, God-fearing father from Stillwater, Oklahoma self-described as a “royal f**k-up,” he is now clean after an extended bout of heavy drug and alcohol abuse.
Walking the straight and narrow is all well and good, but it does not undo the past. That past for Bill involves his daughter he was not there for, Allison (Abigail Breslin), who left the conservative Stillwater for the liberal Marseilles, France to study at college. She met a girl she fell for and one thing leading to another which has ended with Abigail spending the last five years in a jail cell for a crime she claims she never committed. Bill is determined to correct this injustice once and for all and possibly even find redemption as a father—which begins with the unlikely help of Virginie (Camille Cottin) a Marseilles native theatre actress and her eight-year-old daughter in the sweet-but-smart Maya (Lilou Siauvaud).
Much like one of the actual themes of the movie being the age-old adage of never judging a book by its cover, the trailer for Stillwater puts out a specific sense as to what kind of movie it is going to be. With the pulse-pounding music in the background, aggressively urgent vibes are evoked; some in the YouTube comments section even jokingly referring to Damon’s latest feature as “Jason Bourne: Southern Edition.” Yet, that isn’t quite what Stillwater is. This isn’t a pure bait-and-switch, the overall final product is less about the thrilling mystery and more about the people that are front and center within it. That doesn’t make Stillwater a bad movie—there’s more good and nothing outright bad, but it does make it something that can be sort of uneven in totality.
There aren’t many who have had the career trajectory of writer/director Tom McCarthy. He started in theater and stand-up comedy, then moved into television and film acting, and finally making a slight shift into filmmaking beginning in 2003. It wouldn’t be until 2015 that McCarthy would reach prominence with the subtly scintillating Spotlight, and in-between that film and Stillwater, he has but one directorial credit to his name. Spotlight showed the director’s ability to let the story drive the direction, but in Stillwater—though this isn’t a super flashy presentation—McCarthy uses the entire area of Marseilles from the slummy ghettos to the picturesque Les Corniches to draw parallels to America. His final act introduces traditional thriller elements that visually work, but break up the cohesiveness of the proceedings as a whole.
Stillwater truly does have three(ish) acts. Well, let’s say four with a clear delineation of parts in Act II. There is the first, which is actually rather bumpy and takes some adjustment to get used to; this obviously isn’t a foreign film but expect way more subtitles than anticipated as this initial act takes the form of exposition and serves as a map setting for the key players in the story. That leads into the second, which sees McCarthy transform his feature from one of determined urgency to an acceptance of one’s situation and an effort in redemption. It’s at this point where the movie pivots most from the trailer expectations and becomes a heavier character analysis. Stillwater at this point looks at the choices Bill made leading up to this and asks whether he implicitly or explicitly had anything to do with the situation Allison finds herself in. McCarthy even throws in the possibility that Allison—despite being on polar political ends from her father—is much closer habitually to him than she’d imagine.
Finally, the last act sees McCarthy finding closure to the “A” story largely inspired by one Amanda Knox. Unfortunately, it veers into happenstance territory at the worst possible time and some earlier dialogue is placed too conveniently for it to not telegraph the mystery reveal. Think a fusion of Prisoners with a dash of this summer’s smash television hit in Cruel Summer. I’ll give credit to the writer/director though, as his final scene is beautifully reflective in the inversion of lead character viewpoints and how they now see the world.
Damon is Damon; he is never bad or rarely mediocre and that trend continues here. Alongside the talented French starlet Cottin, he shares moments of levity eventually evolving into substance. However, he is not the MVP of the movie, which is an accolade shared by Breslin and the newcomer Siauvaud, absolutely spectacular in her debut. The emotional thread of the movie is held by these two young women and without their efforts, Stillwater would be missing a reason or two to care about its characters’ journeys.
Kind of clunky but also compelling in long stretches, I can see Stillwater both gaining a sustained momentum push into awards season, and I could see more people groaning at its incongruity. Like so many things nowadays, it is going to be divisive in the audience and critical reaction. Keep an open mind.