'Stillwater' is four movies in one, and only some of them work

A roughneck tries to exonerate his daughter in Stillwater

In Stillwater, Matt Damon plays Bill Baker, an Oklahoma roughneck who works on oil rigs by day and prays before his fast-food dinner at night. Bill has a lot on his mind, the substance and complexity of which is revealed with deliberate finesse in the course of a movie best described as wide-ranging, literally and figuratively.

No sooner has the audience adapted to Bill’s workmanlike daily rhythms than he is suddenly on a plane to Marseille, France, where he checks into a Best Western and is greeted with “Welcome back, Mr. Baker,” delivered in a French accent. Thus Tom McCarthy, who co-wrote and directed Stillwater, delivers the first surprise, introducing his protagonist and his quest not with the usual setup and sudden reversal that constitute typical inciting incidents, but in the middle of things — in this case, the grind of having a college-age daughter serving a nine-year prison sentence in France, where she has been convicted of murdering her roommate.

Bill, it turns out, makes regular trips to Marseille, to deliver laundry, news from home, and not much else. His relationship with his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) is strained, their conversations stilted and wary. The letter she asks him to deliver to her attorney contains a potentially exculpatory lead in her case, but she doesn’t trust him enough to let him know what it is. When the lawyer gives Bill the brushoff, he takes it upon himself to follow up. What ensues is a fish-out-of-water procedural in which a working-class father from middle America must navigate Marseille’s polyglot streets, not just to free his daughter but earn back her respect.

That material alone would seem to be enough for an absorbing drama — one that plays like Taken, but without the outlandish violence and overcompensating derring-do. Inspired by the case of Amanda Knox, who in 2009 was convicted of murdering a fellow exchange student in Italy, McCarthy uses the bare bones of that story as a jumping off point. Along with co-writers Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré, and Marcus Hinchey, McCarthy in fact turns Stillwater into several movies at once: one part international thriller, one part meditation on America’s role in a changing and pluralistic society, one part father-daughter psychodrama, and one part improbable romance.

Inevitably, some of those threads work better than others. Early in the film, Bill befriends a French actress named Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), a precocious and openhearted 9-year-old who is fascinated by Bill’s facility with tools. The three develop a familial bond that feels warm and organic, in large part thanks to the three actors’ unforced chemistry.

Virginie is fascinated by Bill, too, but for different reasons than Maya. She and her bohemian friends playfully interrogate him about owning guns and voting for Donald Trump (his answer to the latter is yet another breadcrumb revealing his character’s past). One of the film’s animating questions is whether Bill and Virginie will see past their preconceived ideas about each other to connect simply as two decent, if different, human beings.

Some of the plotlines aren’t nearly as effective or convincing: Scenes with Bill and Allison feel perfunctory, and although it becomes clear that the two have a lot of issues, they never seem to assume their full weight between the two. A sudden development late in the film suffers from the same superficiality. No sooner does it happen for no apparent narrative reason than it disappears, never to be referenced again.

McCarthy, who won an Oscar for his journalistic procedural Spotlight, knows how to burrow into a place and let human behavior tell the story. With Stillwater, things get too plotty, especially when Bill tries to find his inner Liam Neeson (again, with utterly unconvincing results). It doesn’t help that Damon plays Bill with a lack of affect and a fake Southern accent that recall Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade. He’s between a rock and a stone in a movie that clearly couldn’t have been made without his star power, but in which his best efforts to hide that charisma — behind a billed gimme-cap and a near-constant grimace — keep his character at a constant arm’s length.

Still, there are old-fashioned cinematic pleasures to be had in Stillwater, including Mychael Danna’s exquisite orchestral score, Masanobu Takayanagi’s handsome cinematography, and those wonderful scenes with Damon and Cottin, the latter of whom is making a Hollywood movie debut fresh from the cult Netflix series Call My Agent! What’s more, McCarthy brings compassion and insight to Stillwater’s political subtext, which is less interested in ascribing Americans’ misdeeds to belligerence or intolerance, but to our singular blend of naivete and self-belief. As in life, what drives most of the drama in this overstuffed but often thought-provoking movie is a failure to communicate. 

Crime/drama, rated R, 180 minutes, Violet Crown, 3 chiles

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