Tom McCarthy’s latest film “Stillwater” is deceptively unique and layered, which is to be expected from the filmmaker who brought us “Spotlight” and “Win Win.”
While the advertising suggests some Liam Neeson/”Taken”-esque thriller, “Stillwater” is a gripping, cerebral drama camouflaged for the Bourne fans. McCarthy and company have crafted a screenplay that takes a fascinating juxtaposition between Middle America, Oklahoma and Marseille, France.
What keeps “Stillwater” intriguing for more than two hours is how McCarthy maintains this juggling act of “Did she do it?” with Damon’s character investigating his daughter’s past, all while illuminating the cross-cultural aspects between two extremely different worlds.
This allows the audience to slowly fall for this antihero, just as much as they will the other characters in the story. With the Josh Brolin facial hair, an authentic Oklahoma accent and eagle-meets-skull tattoos, the Damon we know evaporates, leaving us only with Bill Baker.
A footlong from Sonic and a pack of cigarettes sums up roughneck rig worker Bill Baker. An absent father with about as much culture as you can squeeze into a thimble makes a regular trip from Stillwater, Oklahoma, to Marseille, France, where his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) is serving a nine-year prison sentence.
“What’s wrong with us,” she asks her father, who also has been to prison. Allison maintains her innocence of her girlfriend’s murder, and with no hope left from the courts, Bill searches for individuals involved that night who might shed light on another suspect.
Speaking no French and having no desire to learn, a chance encounter with a local actress and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) provide him the translator he needs. Searching against odds, against lawyers’ advice and a skeptical daughter, Bill is determined to do at least one thing right in his life, for a change.
“Why Marseille?” Virginie (Camille Cottin) asks Bill, a question to which he doesn’t have much of an answer. Why would a small-town girl from Stillwater choose to study overseas? McCarthy is careful not to paint France as idyllic. Like most of his films, he chooses the rundown part of the city where most of the film takes place.
Racism, poverty and crime surround the seaside city that is to Paris as Newark is to New York. The culture clash of language, customs and race becomes as engrossing as the plot. Normally, such “fish out of water” scenarios are reserved for comedies, and while “Stillwater” isn’t without flashes of humor, we are engaged in thought-provoking situations that continue to resonate long after the credits roll.
Bill Baker is the most challenging, un-Damon-like role the Oscar winner has taken since his flash with brilliance in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Damon’s performances have gotten quite dull this past decade as he seems to gravitate toward characters who always have the right answers.
In “Stillwater,” it’s his naivete that allows the audience to empathize; he turns Bill Baker into someone we all know or have known. McCarthy asks us many questions throughout the film, but the one that resonates most is, “What lengths would your parent(s) go to understand you?”
Adjusted expectations for “Stillwater” are recommended. Don’t buy a ticket expecting action, violence or suspense; you will be disappointed.
Final Thought: McCarthy and an impressive Damon cultivate an immersive drama that incurs tough questions with no easy answers.
Dustin Chase is a film critic and associate editor with Texas Art & Film, which is based in Galveston. Visit