I finally watched Stillwater a few weeks ago. Stillwater, as you remember, was originally meant to come out in 2019 but the release date got moved to November of 2020, presumably so it could be an Oscar contender and also so it could come out just in time to provide some cinematic commentary on the presidential election. However, due to the COVID lockdowns, the release date got moved back to 2021. It was finally released on July 30th, 2021 and it was briefly the center of some controversy before everyone forgot that the movie existed.
Stillwater tells the story of Bill Baker (Matt Damon) and his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin). Bill is a plain-spoken construction worker from Oklahoma. He drives a pickup truck. He always wears a baseball cap. He speaks in the deep accent of the American midwest. He says grace before eating. He probably listens to country music and Kid Rock. Though he says at one point that he can’t vote because he has a criminal record, Bill would probably have voted for Trump if he had been allowed to vote (hence, the controversy when the film was finally released).
His daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), left Oklahoma so that she could attend school in France and, presumably, so she could get away from her father. Allison’s girlfriend, Lina, was murdered in France and Allison was convicted of the crime. Now, she’s sitting in prison while still protesting her innocence. Every few weeks, Bill boards a plane and flies to France. He gives Allison supplies, like an Oklahoma University sweatshirt. He also tries to convince the authorities to reopen her case. Allison swears that there is evidence that will exonerate her. When Bill, who doesn’t even speak French, realizes that he will never be able to convince the authorities to reopen the case, he decides to do some investigating on his own.
Bill moves to France. He lives with and eventually falls in love with an actress named Virginie (Camille Cottin). He becomes a surrogate father to Virginie’s young daughter. Virginie also serves as Bill’s translator as he searches for a witness who can prove that Allison is innocent. Virginie gets upset when Bill suspects that the murderer might have been a refugee from the Middle East. When one potential witness uses racial slurs, Virginie refuses to translate anything that he says. When she explains to Bill why she won’t talk to the man, Bill replies that he deals with people like that all the time …. back in the United States. When Virginie’s cultured friends meet Bill, they all dismiss him as being an ugly American and demand to know why he doesn’t like immigrants.
Yes, you guessed it. Stillwater isn’t just a murder mystery. It’s also meant to make a statement about America’s place in the world, with Bill standing in for the country during the age of Trump. Bill is the type of American that Europeans tend to hate and Bill’s efforts to prove his daughter’s innocence lead to him doing some things that have obvious parallels with the techniques used by CIA interrogators during the War on Terror. “How far would you go to protect your family? How far would you go to protect your country?” the film seems to be asking. It’s not an irrelevant question but the film approaches it in too heavy-handed of a manner to really be effective. Matt Damon might as well have spent the entire film shouting, “I’m an American!” like Dennis Hopper did in Apocalypse Now. That would have actually be kind of fun.
For someone who has given so many good performance in the past (and who was excellent in The Last Duel), Matt Damon gives a curiously detached performance as Bill. One gets the feeling that Damon was not particularly interested in emotionally connecting with the role of someone who has probably never seen a Matt Damon movie and who would certainly never vote for any of the candidates that Matt Damon has ever endorsed. (One can just imagine the scene if Will Hunting tried to convince Bill Baker to read anything by Howard Zinn.) Since Damon doesn’t seem to know how to suggest that Bill has any sort of inner life, he instead concentrates on trying to perfect Bill’s accent. And yet, even there, the film is inconsistent. It takes more to sound like your from Oklahoma than just lowering your voice and saying, “Yeah” a lot. Watching the film, I could help but think that Mark Wahlberg or even Ben Affleck would have been a bit better cast as Bill. Neither one of them sounds like they’re from Oklahoma, of course. But they do have the sort of blue collar attitude that Damon was lacking.
As for Abigail Breslin, she’s not really given much of a role to play. Every 15 minutes or so, she steps into a prison meeting room and berates her father for not getting her out of jail. Until that last few minutes of the film, that’s pretty much the extent of her role. Breslin is playing a character who is obviously meant to bring to mind Amanda Knox. The real-life Knox didn’t particularly appreciate this and, having watched the film, I have to say that Knox was more than justified in being offended. Even though the film is fictionalized, enough of the details of Allison’s case correspond to the details of Amanda Knox’s case that it’s impossible to watch the film without thinking of Knox. Beyond that, though, Allison is an inconsistently written character. The film’s final twist lacks power precisely because we really don’t know anything about Allison or what her relationship with her father was like before she was arrested.
As a director, Tom McCarthy uses the same flat visual style that made Spotlight one of the least interesting films to ever win best picture. Tonally, the film is all over the place. It starts out as a murder mystery before becoming a romance, and then suddenly, it takes a turn into Taken territory. It ends on an annoyingly ambiguous note, meant to leave the audience to wonder whether or not everything that Bill went though was actually worth it. If Bill and Allison felt like real characters, the ending may have worked but since they don’t, the ending just leaves you wondering whether it was worth spending over two hours to reach this point.
Anyway, if you want to see a better Damon performance, I suggest checking out Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel. If you want to see a better film for director Tom McCarthy, I suggest tracking down 2011’s Win Win, a charming film that feels authentic in a way that Stillwater never quite does.