It’s hard to think back on a fish out of water story like Stillwater and not see a film with an intently American viewpoint overhanging everything that happens. Think Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris or even Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Despite their critical acclaim and my own personal fondness for at least two of them, they always fall prey to the glamorisation of the exotic locations they visit while never really connecting with the culture and mindset of the place they are in. Stillwater sets itself apart by attempting to mesh an overtly American character into a whole new world instead of revolving the film around him. The problem is the story he is trapped in won’t let him be anything other than an American cowboy.
Following oil rig worker Bill (Matt Damon), who travels to Marseille to visit his imprisoned daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) who having spent five years in prison for the murder of her roommate/lover comes across some new evidence that could exonerate her. When her lawyers refuse to investigate, Bill takes it upon himself with the help of local theatre actress Virginie (Camille Cottin) to search for the truth, striking up a meaningful relationship with the single mother and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) in his search for answers.
Coming in at a robust 140 minutes, Stillwater could easily be a stagnant crime thriller, a mid-life crisis Jason Borne running (or more aptly strolling) around a French city in search of answers and the opportunity to kick ass and take names. It feels right therefore that Damon here plays against type, a hard man trying not to be, trying to be more compassionate. This shift and Damon’s performance propel the film and mean that there isn’t a moment here that feels wasted. A simple investigative plot weaves through the streets of Marseille with subtlety connecting you to a city that is culturally vast and never simple. Director Tom McCarthy (Spotlight, Win Win) crafts a multi-layered character piece by just embracing the environment and Bill’s lack of a place within it. Accompanied by a thrilling score by Mychael Danna, intentionally playing to Bill’s western roots but constantly shifting as Bill himself does.
It’s in McCarthy’s script, co written with Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré, that Stillwater seemingly forgets the kind of story it is telling. Consistently avoiding the American cliché, the easy way out of a complicated conversation, the film’s conclusion is almost entirely made up of them, painfully reminding you that this really is an American story set in France. To the detriment of everything that came before, the final moments make things easy, predictable but most of all, simple. A moment of much needed empathy between Bill and Maya is sullied by a seemingly tense sequence of Hollywood nonsense moments earlier. Despite some excellent setup, Stillwater trips over the finish line making it hard not to ask, what the point was in the first place.
While it is hard not to see the real life parallels here, McCarthy smartly uses them for added texture instead of a straight adaptation as the latter would almost certainly have been in bad taste. The real story here, clumsily told to us by Allison in one of the films silliest exchanges, is Bill and his coming to terms with his decisions and the past McCarthy smartly avoids discussing, only alluding to. While it might be an overly simplistic dive into American closed mindedness, it is the openness with which Damon embraces this and the chemistry he shares with an excellent Cottin and Siauvaud that makes a pessimistic watch something strangely hopeful and for the most part, not what you would expect.
As a first film back in the cinema after an extended period of illness and self isolation, it might not have been the idealistic perfect film but it had one hell of a voice, even if it got drowned out towards the end.