- Focus Features
Bill Baker (Matt Damon) is a red-state American; of that there can be no doubt. The unemployed roughneck from Oklahoma says a blessing before every meal, owns two guns and treats the notion of going to live theater like you'd suggested he go to Mars. When asked if he voted for Trump, he notes that he didn't vote at all, because of a criminal record, but it's clear that's a technicality. The protagonist of Tom McCarthy's Stillwater feels like a test case for whether you can build a movie around a "good people on both sides" notion—and when leaving certain things unsaid is dramatic efficiency, vs. when it feels like cheating.
McCarthy certainly streamlines the narrative by dropping us right into a reality that Bill has been living with for five years already: His daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) is serving a sentence in a prison in Marseille for murdering her then-girlfriend while studying abroad. Allison insists on her innocence, and during one of Bill's visits to France, he begins following up on a possible lead involving anecdotal reports that a young man confessed to the killing.
Don't fall under the misapprehension that Stillwater is some sort of taut thriller, despite TV ads that really want you to think so. Bill's "father on a mission" journey makes up a relatively small part of the story, which focuses instead on the changes in Bill's life once he decides to stay in France for as long as it takes to find the elusive other suspect. Those changes include his relationship with a French aspiring actress/single mother named Virginie (Camille Cottin) and Virginie's 8-year-old daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), as Bill becomes a kind of surrogate father to Maya in a way that clearly represents the regret he feels over not being present very much as a father to Allison.
Bill's back-story is made up of a lot of sketched-in pieces—references to his fuck-up, absentee parent past; the suicide of his wife/Allison's mother—that are meant to make Stillwater richer as a character study about a simple guy figuring out that some things aren't simple. But some of those pieces remain obscure enough that it seems like McCarthy and his co-writers just don't want to deal with them, particularly concerning Bill's response to his daughter being gay. It's clear from Allison's comments that one of her reasons for leaving Oklahoma for overseas study was to "get far away," yet there's literally never a moment in Stillwater that so much as hints at Bill's own feelings. If he was always perfectly supportive, or maybe made peace with it over the intervening five years, it might have been nice to understand how either of those things informs the remainder of his character arc.
That's because as Stillwater plays out, it really becomes about the realization of moral shades of grey in a man who might previously have seen them in black-and-white. Virginie often serves as a conscience for Bill at times when he's fine with exploiting prejudices to help Allison, as when a bigoted Frenchman offers to identify whichever young Arab Bill wants as the other murder suspect. There's a potentially intriguing dynamic there—the American conservative abroad finding himself not a fish out of water, but among plenty of like-minded people—and it's to McCarthy's credit that he's not interested in turning Bill into a cliché of an "ugly American." It's just hard to figure out precisely what McCarthy is turning Bill into.
To Matt Damon's credit—and to McCarthy's, with his acting experience informing his direction of actors—he does a tremendous job of burying himself in a different kind of blue-collar guy than the ones he grew up around in Massachusetts. His performance stays largely internalized, never looking to underline the notion of a redemption arc with emotional breakdowns or big gestures that would be out of character. If there's a frustration here, it's that Stillwater is so determined to avoid caricature of heartland Americans that it dodges anything that would have gotten Bill's hands dirty. In a polarized world, there's a fine line between creating a character somewhere between those poles, and making him so enigmatic that you pretend the poles don't exist.