Stillwater is one of those Hollywood films where ageing superstars who cut their teeth on prestige action franchises and ‘settle down’ into Dad roles with a prominent redemption arc.
“Americans don’t like to change,” goes a typically pithy line from Tom McCarthy’s new thriller Stillwater, starring Matt Damon as Bill Baker, a laid-off oil-rig worker from Stillwater, Oklahoma who has just begun a new life in France.
Bill’s daughter Allison [Abigail Breslin] is convicted of her roommate and unfaithful girlfriend Lina’s murder in Marseille, and after unsuccessfully trying to secure her freedom, Bill decides to stay on and repair his relationship with her instead.
As some of you may have surmised, Allison’s storyline definitely takes the Amanda Knox affair [the American writer and journalist falsely accused of murdering her Italian roommate] as a starting point. But that is where the similarity ends. Stillwater may be dressed up like an action thriller starring ‘Trucker Damon’ but it is really more interested in being a psychological drama, a grim character study about appearances being deceptive.
Are Europeans always more ‘refined’ than Americans, and are Americans always quicker to violence, especially of the firearms persuasion? What do ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ mean in a land where the American definitions of the term are seriously off the mark? [Bernie Sanders, for example, would be seen as only very slightly left of centre in Europe].
That bit about America’s resistance to change is lobbed at the audience even as we are beginning to make sense of Bill as a person — he feels like a deliberately washed-up version of the all-American hero. He loves guns and fears the wrath of God, and is generally very much in the “fuckup trying to make amends” mode for the first half of the film. But he is also surprisingly liberal about certain issues [and no, he is not a Donald Trump voter, not a climate change denier or anti-vaxxer], as we discover through his budding romance with his French neighbour Virginie [Camille Cottin], whose young daughter Maya becomes a kind of second shot at fatherhood for Bill, who is determined not to get it wrong this time round.
But the man is also, at the end of the day, a red-blooded American man, and with that comes the kind of attitude that writer David Foster Wallace encapsulated in the line: “I will take radical action and solve this!” As indeed Bill tries, setting off a chain of events that will make just about everything in his life worse.
Damon is really good here, if not quite in top form. Breslin, who was one of Hollywood’s premier child actors in the previous decade, has eased into grown-up roles with aplomb. I particularly enjoyed her work in the last half-hour of the film, where both father and daughter go through intense realisations of their own. And Cottin, whose whip-smart quips you all have enjoyed on Call My Agent, does a great job too.
The editing is crisp and the dialogue is seldom loud or preachy, cinematographer Masa Takayanagi’s camera hovers over Bill’s shoulder on occasion, as though ‘miming’ the beginning of an action sequence [where the hero sees the enemy hordes from the front] before settling down to more sedate, dialogue-driven angles. Takayanagi has also shot Silver Linings Playbook in the past, another film where every scene seems to tell us something new and fascinating about its characters — it takes a lot of highly skilled and economic camerawork to achieve that consistently.
We have seen Mel Gibson, Liam Neeson et al rehash this formula, and to an extent, Stillwater is in conversation with those genre films — Bill Baker is determined to travel the slow, torturous path for the sake of his daughter. But he is also similar to those Dads of Hollywood Past in the sense that the screenplay never lets us forget that this is a man capable of Great Violence™, given the right nudge.
Nevertheless, Stillwater is well-crafted, solidly mounted drama that keeps you hooked until its somewhat predictable last 20 minutes or so. The fire still burns brightly for Matt Damon, I have to say, and this may well be the beginning of a contemplative new phase in his acting career.
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