By Elias Savada.
I pray that Stillwater is just a blip on the director’s stunning career.
I wish that I could recommend this latest film from director Tom McCarthy, whose first feature, The Station Agent, remains fresh in my mind after 18 years. I loved that inaugural work (“a film with talent, sophistication, humor, and sensitivity rolled into a joyous, grief-cleansing, heart-lifting 90 minutes”). If you don’t remember back that far – or to The Visitor and Win Win (his 2nd and 3rd efforts), revisit his Academy Award®-winning Spotlight from 2016. That hard-hitting drama about the Boston Globe‘s investigation into widespread child sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests (and very much still in the news, with the recent charging of Theodore E. McCarrick, a former cardinal, with sexual abuse), seems just a heartbeat away from his new film, very loosely based on the story of Amanda Knox, the American teenager caught up in an Italian murder controversy back in 2007. Knox has accused the director and actor of “rip[ping] off my story without my consent at the expense of my reputation.” I suspect that she might be especially upset on how the film (which is fictional) twists the ending.
Alas, Stillwater, is quite still for most of its in over-extended 140-minute running time. Damon’s beleaguered, baseball-capped, blue collar Bill Baker is a recovering ex-con and ex-addict who drifts about life in Oklahoma between brief stints working oil rigs and construction sites. Yup, he drives a pickup truck. Meanwhile, his grown daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), is imprisoned in Marseille for a crime she insists was committed by someone else. Ever so often, dad travels to France, returning to a budget hotel, where from a barebones room he visits his daughter, offering her homegrown supplies, news from her family, then treks out to the authorities to try to get the case reconsidered and Allison freed. Ultimately he relocates there for an extended stay.
After the incarcerated woman offers her dad some leads – and the French legal system refuses to follow them up – it’s left for the American fish-out-of-water to do his own sleuthing, occasionally assisted by some local cops, but mostly left on his own to try and find the missing “person of interest” his daughter has identified. His stern demeanor, accompanied by a limited French (and English, too, for the most part) vocabulary, is no match for the ruffians in his mist. Oh, if Damon had only been allowed to access some of that Jason Bourne juice that rushed through his veins in the three action thrillers based on that character created by Robert Ludlum.
No, here you’ll need to settle for a screenplay by McCarthy & Marcus Hinchey and Thomas Bidegain & Noé Debré, with shifting focal points, first on Breslin’s character, and then on someone else. Their political tale displays the American male as a working-class anti-hero, too proud for his own good, but impassive to change. The script tries to smooth out his rough edges and energize the staid action by introducing a wannabee French actress, Virginie (Camille Cottin). She sports a cherubic 9-year-old child, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), who becomes the American’s interpreter, as he serves as her devoted babysitter. For quite a while the relationship is platonic, and even when it eventually moves into friends-with-benefits mode, it’s hard to find the love between the two very believable. Bill’s not built that way. His rapport with Maya blossoms into something that reflects how the estranged father might have reassembled his broke-down parenting skills now that he’s on a mission of reconciliation.
Damon constantly puts on a stern face as a God-fearing American, but, thankfully, his Republican side doesn’t lean toward the extreme, and that the former U.S. President held no esteem in his mind. He didn’t cast a ballot for or against him. He just didn’t vote.
The bleakness of Bill’s self-impoverished character, which is a distinct, near-polar opposite of his daughter’s mindset, ultimately pushes them to bump heads of how his actions have jeopardized her situation. While Damon does a fine job to stay in his confined character, there’s just so much he can do with it.
The problem I have is that the film didn’t engage me. Maybe, if someone put a firecracker under someone’s butt, Stillwater might have risen about its lackluster frame, but McCarthy’s film seems to be looking for a different angle than his previous efforts, so the lingering effect (and the film is guilty of doing too much of that) leans toward being something quite long-in-the-tooth. I pray that Stillwater is just a blip on the director’s stunning career.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).