Tom McCarthy directs a stoic Matt Damon in a film about America’s role on the world stage, which ultimately says very little.
In Tom McCarthy’s Stillwater, Matt Damon wears a baseball hat. He notches his sunglasses, a pair of knockoff Oakleys, on the brim of his cap; the rest of his body is covered by an assortment of denim, flannel, plaid and Carhartt products. These costume choices are the movie’s way of telling us that Damon’s character, Bill Baker, is a “regular guy.” Unfortunately, outside of his wardrobe, there’s nothing that really defines Bill, and even less that makes Stillwater worth watching.
Despite taking its title from an Oklahoma town that amended its face mask mandate last May after the population of said town threatened violence, much of this meandering, “prestige” picture is set in Marseille, France. When we meet Damon’s Bill, he’s leaving his job at a construction site for a trip to Europe – to visit his daughter, who’s currently halfway through a nine year prison sentence. Five years before the events of the film, Allison (Abigail Breslin) was convicted of murdering her girlfriend, a French Arab woman named Lina. She swears she didn’t do it.
Loosely inspired by the events surrounding Amanda Knox’s wrongful conviction – though completely uninterested in the reality of her experience – director McCarthy (Spotlight) and his three additional screenwriters bumble through their decadent, endless runtime with frustrating inefficiency. The initial hook comes from Allison’s mistrust of her father and his determination to follow a new thread of evidence that could prove her innocence. A perpetual fish out of water, Bill stays at a Best Western and dines at France’s finest Subway – he’s a totally inept investigator of Marseille’s criminal underworld.
The film seems to be trying to say something about American influence overseas – what is Bill if not a colonizer who imposes his will on a place he has no interest in understanding? Eventually, the would-be conquistador meets a stage actress named Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her young daughter Maya (Lilou Siauyard) – Bill’s relationship with this family develops at a snail’s pace. Stillwater’s interest in its side characters sounds good on paper, but these characters aren’t particularly unique or charismatic.
Bill’s a lot like a rock – the boring, external details of his psychology are all clear, but everything under the surface is concealed and out of reach. We know that he prays before every meal, loves watching Oklahoma football, and has a tattoo of a knife stabbing a flaming skull on his shoulder, but Stillwater stops short of digging any deeper. We’re kept at arm’s length, just like everyone else in Bill’s life. The filmmakers never find a way to make their protagonist vulnerable, let alone push him towards genuine self-awareness. In other words, Damon can’t coalesce this script’s random bits of information into a person. Cottin, on the other hand, turns in a much more nuanced performance – until the film gets tired of exploring Virginie’s nuances.
All so we can get on with the plot and its seemingly relevant commentary. But what is Stillwater really trying to say about truth, the United States, or its place in the world? Had McCarthy truly focused on Bill, Stillwater’s lack of political meaning wouldn’t feel quite so glaring. Instead, Damon’s just an empty head to hold a baseball hat and some sunglasses.
Stillwater is now playing in theaters.