As the Summer dwindles down into its final weeks, many Americans are hoping to make that final yearly vacation trip to a foreign land (with a new covid surge, that may prove very difficult right now). That notion’s at the core of this week’s new film release as a stoic simple man from the “plains” travels to one of Europe’s centers of high culture, a fabled section of France. Oh, and he doesn’t speak the language. Sounds like a “fish-out-of-water” culture-clash comedy. Oh no, it’s just the opposite. He’s on a desperate quest to save his daughter’s life, as she faces what could turn into a “death sentence” in a prison thousands of miles from her hometown in Oklahoma called STILLWATER.
The story begins just a few miles outside of that city as “between jobs” oil rigger Bill Baker (Matt Damon) picks up a few bucks as part of a “clean up crew” helping to clear the debris left from a tornado strike in a rural community. From there, he’s off to an interview at a construction site. The next morning Bill meets with his former mother-in-law Sharon (Deanna Dunagan) before his overseas visit with his daughter. Bill scoops up some last-minute gifts (an “Aggies” sweatshirt is a must) at the airport before his long flight to Marseille, France. He checks into a modest international hotel chain and encounters a cute eight-year-old girl playing in the hallway outside his room. From there he’s off to see his twenty-something daughter…at the women’s prison. Alison (Abigal Breslin) is five years into her sentence, convicted for the murder of her college roommate/lover Lina. During their monitored visit, she slips him a note, written in French, for her local legal team. He takes it to the law offices, but Abigal’s lawyer insists that her request will not prompt a new trial and that she must accept her fate. Returning to his hotel, Bill spots that same little girl sitting on the floor near a room. After a few words and lots of pantomimes, he learns that Maya (Lilou Siavaud) has been locked out of her room. Bill takes her to the front desk and aids in getting a new key card. Later her grateful mother, an aspiring actress named Virginie (Camille Cottin) knocks on his door and thanks him. Bill takes her up on her offer of help and asks her to translate Abigail’s note. In it, she tells of a visit from a former teacher who passes on a story from another student who had a bar conversation with a young man named Akim who boasted that he had gotten away with murder. Though Abigal calls him “inept’ in the letter, Bill contacts several local private detectives. One is sympathetic, though his fees are very high. He tells of connections in the police force, who could help with a DNA match if Bill could provide one of the “accused”. Thus begins his extended stay, as Bill decides to somehow track down this “braggart’ and free his only daughter from life inside a foreign jail.
Damon adds another superb portrayal to his ever-growing list of unique screen performances. There’s nothing “flashy” about Bill Baker, who could completely blend in at any rural small town or village in the US. In France, he somewhat “sticks out” though he never calls attention to himself. He’s reserved and emotionally restrained, but, in a play on his hometown (and the film’s title), his “still waters” run very deep. As the story progresses, we get several insights into his past: he lashed out at the local press during Abigal’s trial, incurring an assault charge. Many years before that he retreated into a bottle, perhaps spurring the suicide of his wife, Abigail’s mom. But through Damon’s intense stare with those dark half-lidded eyes, we see a man lurching himself toward redemption. Perhaps helping to free Abby will clean his messy “slate”. Even his new role as “manny” to Maya is a chance for a “do-over”. Bill has an inner strength, but he’s not a country “riff” on Jason Bourne, as he can barely keep himself mobile, let alone taking on the shadowy figures that spy on him from the widows of the slums. Damon shows us his trepidations as he must suddenly make life-changing decisions without really thinking things through. He makes this weary “everyman’ worthy of our emotional investment. He’s truly riveting in the strained encounters with Breslin as the volatile and dark Abigail. She keeps her papa at a distance, going through the gestures of a family: an awkward hug and brief clasping of hands. Her issues with Bill may have hastened her decision to place an ocean between them, but he’s her last real lifeline now. Still, she’s short and impatient with him, perhaps to continue her rejection of his previous lifestyle. Her mixed emotions are in her body language as she delves into the twisted relationship with her late lover. Later she’s given a “day pass’, but a trip to the beach with Bill only adds to her despair. She haunts his thoughts, but his mind is eased by the new friendship (could it blossom into a bit more) with the intellectual Virginie played with warmth and empathy by Cottin. She knows this gruff “cowboy” is the opposite of her cultural roots, but she is moved by his desperation. And she’s touched by his tender, but firm, handling of her spirited child, played by the adorable Siauvard as Maya. If her cooing of “Beeel” doesn’t melt your heart, check for ice water in your veins.
Oh, and this drama marks the return of director Tom McCarthy, the Oscar-winning talent behind SPOTLIGHT. He goes for an emotional portrait of these flawed characters, rather than exploiting the real-life inspiration (the ups and downs of the Amanda Knox saga) for the tragedy at the story’s center. Perhaps it’s because he also contributed to the unpredictable screenplay, aiding Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noe Debre. There’s no white hats (or caps) and black hats as there’s plenty of grey in the moral decisions made and actions taken. McCarthy makes expert use of the French locales, exposing its beauty, but also its ugly “underbelly” (seems there’s a lot of immigrant intolerance overseas). And there are no clear-cut winners, as the conclusion leaves room for much regret and remorse. McCarthy has concocted a most nourishing meal with healthy dollops of drama, mirth, and gritty, nail-biting suspense. Moviegoers will enjoy the complex, riveting journey of these displaced lost souls hailing from STILLWATER.
3.5 Out of 4
STILLWATER opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, July 30, 2021