Tom McCarthy cites Mediterranean noirs as the inspiration for Stillwater, but there’s little of that mystique in this uneven ‘90s throwback, despite the mostly untapped potential of its atmospheric setting in the French port city of Marseille. Matt Damon gives a solid performance as an unemployed Oklahoma oil rig worker with a messy past, determined to do right by the daughter stuck in prison for a murder she claims she didn’t commit. But that story is clunky, old-fashioned and predictable when it’s not implausible. In any case, it’s less involving than the shot at renewal the failed family man gets with a French single mother.
The latter role, Virginie, is played by Call My Agent! lead Camile Cottin in a quietly luminous performance, juggling French and English dialogue with the same relaxed warmth. As Damon’s Bill Baker grows closer to Virginie and her 9-year-old daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud, a charming natural), this reticent man who wears his disappointment like a heavy overcoat slowly opens up to the possibilities of a life he had thought off-limits. That thread taps into the same kind of sensitively observed cross-cultural connections McCarthy explored in The Visitor, which, along with The Station Agent, remains his most accomplished work as director — regardless of that best picture Oscar for Spotlight.
Doesn’t run deep.
Unfortunately, the A plot keeps dragging the movie down. Following its out of competition premiere in Cannes, this late July Focus release looks likely to make only a brief theatrical detour en route to streaming platforms.
Scripted by McCarthy and Marcus Hinchey with French writers Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré, best known for their collaborations with Jacques Audiard, the screenplay’s earliest draft is from a decade ago and it does indeed play like something that’s been gathering dust in a drawer. There are allusions to current-day red-state America in the blinkered worldview that is part of Bill’s baggage, but that contemporary veneer is undernourished and the story’s political teeth have no bite.
Bill’s daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) is five years into a nine-year sentence for the murder of Lina, the French Arab girlfriend she met while attending college in Marseille. Allison’s mother committed suicide for reasons never revealed, and the declining health of the maternal grandmother who raised her (Deanna Dunagan) means she can no longer travel. So Bill flies to Marseille as often as he can, delivering supplies, picking up her laundry and praying for Allison even though her affection for him seems muted. He was a screw-up before going into recovery for alcohol and drugs, but we only ever get generic hints about the reasons for her coolness toward him.
When Allison learns new information about Lina’s murder, implicating a young man named Akim from the projects, she asks her dad to deliver a letter to her lawyer Leparq (Anne Le Ny), requesting that she have the case reopened. But Leparq declines, pointing out that hearsay is not considered evidence. So while Bill keeps this from Allison, he makes it his mission to find Akim and prove his worth to his daughter. This despite her having made clear in her letter to the lawyer that she considers her father incapable and untrustworthy.
The language barrier and a lack of understanding of how the different social strata of Marseille work make his task a difficult one. But he gets help when he strikes up a friendship with theater actress Virginie, who has a habit of adopting causes.
Unfurling over a sluggish two hours plus, Stillwater is least convincing when McCarthy attempts to build suspense, with most of that work being done by Mychael Danna’s score. The late plot twists become almost risible, once Akim (Idir Azougli) enters the picture.
Part of the problem also is that there’s never much reason to invest in Allison, despite the heavy burden Bill clearly carries. Her case was big news at the time, and in a town where poverty and race draw sharp dividing lines, the sentiment of neither public nor press was much in favor of “the American lesbian.” Breslin has a few tender moments when she gets reacquainted with her father and his new adoptive family during a day release. But mostly, Allison remains remote as a character, especially when she blurts out heavy-handed lines like, “Life is brutal.” The fact that she might not be entirely blameless in Lina’s death should make her more interesting, not less.
Considering that Bidegain was a co-writer on Audiard’s great prison drama A Prophet, an enthralling representation of Muslim identity in a French microcosm, the race elements here are fairly basic. Liberal-minded Virginie bristles at the indiscriminate urge of many to put another Arab kid behind bars as they get closer to tracking down Akim, while for Bill, that kind of kneejerk racism is so familiar he barely notices it.
But those differences are also what makes the gradual transition from friendship to romance of Bill and Virginie so disarming. He’s a religious man who literally wears his patriotism on his sleeve in a bald eagle tattoo. He’s also the owner of not one but two guns, the idea of which Virginie finds incomprehensible. In one amusing scene, while her friend Nedjma (Naidra Ayadi) is helping them with some Instagram detective work, she asks Bill if he voted for Trump. He says only that he didn’t vote because of his arrest record.
Damon finds understated humor in this uncultured man who is nudged for the first time in his life to see himself — and by extension Allison — as the outsiders, the way the rest of the world sees Americans. A telling moment in an early scene finds him in the back of a van with a tornado cleanup crew chattering away in Spanish, while he sits in absent silence. His time in Marseille shows in subtle ways that he’s learning to see beyond otherness, and Damon never overplays that softening of Bill’s closed-off views.
The actor’s many scenes with young Siauvaud are quite lovely, avoiding cutesiness while gently showing Bill’s pleasure in getting to experience the kind of bonding he skipped with his own daughter. His awkward comments when Virginie invites him to watch a rehearsal of a play she’s doing show how completely he’s outside his comfort zone. (“What am I gonna do in a fuckin’ theater?” he asks Allison earlier, with blunt self-awareness.) But the melting of the distance between them is so well played by Damon and Cottin you keep wishing this was their story. A gorgeous interlude in which they dance to Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” with Maya demanding to get in on the act, further cements that desire.
Bill may have stayed on in Marseille to remain in Allison’s life even after her rejection. But it’s the different version of himself he discovers there that provides the often clumsy Stillwater with some grace and heart.