‘Stillwater’ : The Sly Power of Director Tom McCarthy

Yet thanks to that tornado, he’s getting his hands dirty in the remains of utter mess, the wreck of lives painfully unmade — another theme in the making. It’s clear early on that we’re meant to experience the world of this movie through Bill’s eyes, or at the very least firmly at his side. When he’s riding home from the wreckage with some colleagues, at dusk, he overhears them saying, “I don’t think Americans like to change,” and “I don’t think the tornado cares what Americans like.” Only they’re speaking Spanish.

If Bill understands it, he doesn’t react to it; Damon’s face gives nothing away. Nor is the man overly emotive soon after, when paying a visit to his mother-in-law, Sharon (Deanna Dunagan), and the pair engage each other in naturalistically terse conversation, talk full of ellipses that we don’t realize are ellipses, because real people don’t speak as if they know strangers are watching — and these, the movie is committed to impressing upon us, are real people.

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It’s not long before Bill hops on a plane, seemingly all of a sudden, and lands — in France. In sunny, coastal Marseilles, to be exact, a fact that lands with the force of a punchline, despite there being nothing funny at stake in the particulars of this voyage. It’s early in the movie, and Damon — a more than capable actor, whose physical commitment to his roles is, in contrast to his oft-touted ability to “disappear,” remarkably underrated — has already sold us on Bill as a man who could plausibly be the man that the movie wants us to believe he is. He is a “Yes, ma’am” type of guy with an Okie drawl, eyes often hiding behind his wraparound shades, jeans stiff, cap grimed with years of oil and sweat, and an array of plaid shirts, bulgy with hard-working, middle-age fat and muscle, that tells us there’s little distance between a work uniform and everyday life for this man.

He’s in France but does not speak French. When it comes to picking accommodations, he opts for what must feel like a slice of home: a Best Western. He is pronouncedly, unabashedly, though not quite crudely, a so-called red-blooded American.

So, a fish out of water — and eventually gasping for breath. Stillwater, which was directed and co-written by Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), has been advertised and described as a thriller.

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