Tom McCarthy’s new drama “Stillwater” turned several heads and caught many by surprise during its recent premiere at Cannes. On the surface the film looked and sounded like an action thriller about a father leaving his home and going abroad to save his daughter. But that tissue-thin reading misses what the movie is after. “Stillwater” is much more of a character piece and human study built around one of the best performances of Matt Damon’s career.
As an actor, Matt Damon‘s versatility is too often overlooked. From “Good Will Hunting” to the Bourne films; from “Oceans” to “The Martian”; from the grimy underworld of Scorsese’s “The Departed” to the offbeat zaniness of Soderbergh’s “The Informant!”. Damon has been in westerns, war movies, and biopics. And in just a couple of months we’ll see him as a medieval knight in Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel”. That’s the kind of résumé he brings to “Stillwater” where he takes on the role of stoic Oklahoma roughneck Bill Baker.
Damon and McCarthy spent weeks imbedded with real Oklahoma oil drillers both at home and on the job in an effort to get Damon’s character right. Their research paid off and Bill Baker comes off as a real person rather than some bad Red State caricature. That’s crucial because the movie needs for us to believe in Bill but more importantly connect with him on a human level. It’s absolutely necessary.
McCarthy opens his story by giving the audience a snapshot not only of Bill‘s life, but of blue-collar living that will resonate with some and feel completely foreign to others. A shut-down oil rig leaves Bill unemployed and forced to take low paying construction jobs. In the opening scene he’s helping clean up debris in a tornado-ravaged trailer park. After getting paid he stops at a Sonic drive-in and orders a foot-long cheese coney with a large cherry limeade. He takes it home to his small wood-framed house, asks a blessing over his simple dinner and then eats. The evening ends with him sound asleep on the couch with nothing but the flickering glow of the television lighting the room.
That short but detail-rich opening gives us a good sense of the attention McCarthy and Damon give the character. And we get even more when Bill boards a plane and flies to Marseilles, France to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) who’s in prison for a murder she says she didn’t commit. Allison has been behind bars for five years and her repeated claims of innocence falls on deaf ears. The local government has no interest in reopening or relitigating her case which is a position Bill just can’t accept. He gets nothing from Allison’s lawyers and he can’t afford the private detectives. So he sets out on his own following a trail that may or may not provide the answers he’s looking for.
There’s a fish-out-of-water element to “Stillwater” that’s essential to the story and rarely played for laughs. Back home Bill would effortlessly blend in, with the kind of average Joe appearance that people would pass and never take notice. But in Marseilles he sticks out like a sore thumb. His thick bushy goatee, a camo cap, his Carhartt button-up shirt tightly tucked into his dark blue Wrangler blue-jeans. And that’s just the physical barrier. There are also language and cultural walls that Bill runs into face-first. In many instances he tries to ram through them rather than look for a door. It’s a compelling part of the story, but it’s also where McCarthy’s scolding touch can get a little heavy.
Some of Bill’s enlightenment is predictable – an unsophisticated Okie goes to a foreign country and has his eyes opened – you know the story. And we get some good scenes involving both Bill’s stateside smugness and the local condescension he faces. But much more interesting than Bill’s culture clash or his quest to exonerate his daughter is the deeper and more personal journey Bill takes. Much of this comes after he meets a sympathetic single mother named Virginie (a terrific Camille Cottin) and her precocious young daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). The relationship Bill develops with them brings out a side he didn’t know he had while offering him a chance at personal redemption.
Much like he did with his 2015 film “Spotlight”, Tom McCarthy gives his story all the time it needs to play out. At a hefty 140 minutes, “Stillwater” may stick around a little too long for some audiences. You could probably prune several scenes and the movie would still be fine. But I prefer McCarthy’s approach which keeps the characters front-and-center, giving them and their relationships room to grow even if it means running a little long. “Stillwater” is now showing in theaters everywhere.