“Stillwater” (2021) – Stillwater, Okla. sits 984’ above sea level in the north-central portion of the state. Looking at a U.S. map, Kansas might be smack dab in the center of the country, but Americans obviously consider the Sooner State as part of the heartland too.
This 50,000-resident city is known for red dirt music, the Tumbleweed Dance Hall, and cheese fries at Eskimo Joe’s, a popular sports bar. It’s the home to Oklahoma State University and the economic, cultural, and football magic that comes with a major college presence in town. Stillwater is also Bill Baker’s (Matt Damon) hometown. He’s in his 40s or 50s and has toiled on oil rigs for most of his adult life.
He’s been laid off and works odd, part-time construction jobs. When we first meet Bill, he’s cleaning up debris after a tornado leveled a neighborhood, where family homes now resemble mounds of toothpicks, splintered plaster, and broken dreams. Driving back from the site, two Spanish-speaking co-workers can’t grasp why anyone would rebuild a new home in the same city, in Tornado Alley’s path, after already losing everything. One man says that Americans don’t like change.
Although Bill hasn’t voiced it, change is a four-letter word, and his routines provide comfort. Over the last five years, however, the aforementioned expletive has been a horrible burden. A French court sent his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) – an overseas student – to a Marseille prison for murdering her roommate, and Bill has flown back and forth countless times over the last 1,800 days. Steadfast, she claims her innocence, but no one expects the system to release her from a tiny jail cell until her sentence is up.
Bill feels powerless, helpless, and toothless about Allison’s legal calamity, but also about his repeated flights across the Atlantic and infrequent employment.
This massive life interruption has disrupted just about everything, and now this nomad and his part-time foreign existence are his new normal. Bill, however, disturbs this imperfect reality when he looks for – and finds – a break in Allison’s case, and this uncomfortable American attempts to be a detective in a distant land.
Director Tom McCarthy (“The Visitor” (2007), “Spotlight” (2015)) strips away any distance between Bill and the audience. His camera closely follows his lead all over Marseille in a layered drama that is part-character study, part-crime thriller, part-culture clash, and part-family drama. Folks – including this critic – who love Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-winner “The Secret in Their Eyes” (2009) should appreciate this movie and its construction as well. Both dramas – murder mysteries that also include pivotal scenes in soccer stadiums – defy convention and play with pace and genre, which help unfold the narrative in unexpected ways.
Although McCarthy presents a portion of the film in French, there’s not enough francais to qualify “Stillwater” for a Foreign Language Film Academy Award, but Matt Damon gives an Oscar-worthy turn as Bill.
As out of place as a snowball sitting on a tropical island, Bill emotionally closes himself off from his environment and anyone within speaking distance. He’s polite but brief to the Best Western Marseille front-desk clerks, a prominent lawyer, and a pre-teen girl Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) and her mother Virginie (Camille Cottin), who Bill meets at the said hotel. For him, uttering French – even for the tiniest of acknowledgments – isn’t even a thought. Bill will give customary addresses like, “Thank you,” and “Yes, Ma’am,” but always in English. Although he has visited France dozens of times, he doesn’t bend to the culture. He wears plaid shirts, jeans, an ever-present baseball hat, and carries a backpack too.
In a 2018 Graham Norton interview, Emily Blunt and her husband John Krasinski discuss their trans-Atlantic relationship, and she expresses that he should blend in more while in England.
Blunt says, “I did encourage him that he’d be welcome more if he’d stop wearing a baseball cap because I just said, ‘You look so American! Nobody wears baseball caps here.’”
Bill falls into a similar trap, and at one point, Virginie shares that same sentiment. He’s unapologetic in his look and demeanor, which is idealistic but not terribly strategic when trying to find local sources for his daughter.
If you’re wondering, yes, there’s an obvious Amanda Knox similarity with Allison’s predicament, and Ms. Knox took to Twitter on July 29 and articulated her concern.
“Does my name belong to me? My face? What about my life? My story? Why does my name refer to events I had no hand in? I return to these questions because others continue to profit off my name, face & story without my consent. Most recently, the film #STILLWATER,” Knox said on Twitter.
In a July 28 interview with John Benson for Cleveland.com, McCarthy said, “I just was fascinated with that story from 14 years ago. I knew if I grabbed that piece of information, there was no getting away from it because it’s so historically specific. But there’s no similarity in our two stories beyond an American student in jail.”
He adds, “I was just really interested or fascinated by the human drama there – what would that be like to have your daughter in jail in a foreign place where you weren’t familiar with it?”
Setting this disagreement aside and settling back with the film, Damon is thoroughly compelling as Bill, who travels on a trying, emotional journey. His character is an introvert, one attempting to come to terms with his changing world and slowly reaches out to accept (his) today: his flaws, mistakes, and current environment in Marseille, a bustling coastal multicultural European city with 3 million residents.
Bill needs a lifeline, and Virginie and Maya extend their hands, as their budding friendship will trigger warm smiles and feelings. Our protagonist could use a break. After a lifetime of broken promises and relationships, his rigid exterior starts to crack to allow the good stuff to pour into his soul. Cottin and Siauvaud are perfectly cast as Bill’s allies, his connections toward reflection and healing.
“Stillwater” offers so much to reflect upon, including images of both locales and their impacts on one man, an old soul who doubles as a new traveler.
⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Directed by: Tom McCarthy
Written by: Tom McCarthy, Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, Noe Debre
Starring: Matt Damon, Camille Cottin, Lilou Siauvaud, and Abigail Breslin
Runtime: 140 minutes
Image credits: Focus Features