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Non-Review Review: Stillwater

Stillwater is effectively three different movies bundled together. Each of those three movies have their own merits and their own weaknesses, but none of them really work when bundled together.

Stillwater stars Matt Damon as Bill Baker, a demolition worker from the eponymous town in Oklahoma. His daughter Allison is five years into a nine-year sentence in Marseilles, having been found guilty of a sensational crime involving the death of her roommate. Even half a decade later, Allison still protests her innocence and Bill tries to maintain some connection with his previously estranged daughter. However, the past is pulled into the present when a potential new lead opens up.

Damon’s demons.

Stillwater is directed by Tom McCarthy, who won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar (and was nominated for the Best Director Oscar) for his work on Spotlight. McCarthy has kept relatively busy since winning the award, collaborating on the script for Christopher Robin and doing uncredited rewrites on The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. However, Stillwater still feels likes something of a long-awaited return from McCarthy as a prestige filmmaker. Stillwater is built around a central movie star, deals with weighty issues, and even (faintly) echoes the very public spectacle of the Amanda Knox trial.

However, the film never coheres into a compelling narrative. It is disjointed and uneven, bouncing clumsily between tones and struggling to anchor itself as it switches freely between genres. Stillwater doesn’t run quite as deep as it needs to.

An American in Marseilles.

Stillwater has a relatively conventional three-act structure, however each of those three acts has a very distinct sensibility. The film runs two-hours-and-twenty minutes, but it feels longer because it keeps stopping and starting over. The film’s opening act feels like something of a prestige picture spin on the sort of “fish out of water” thrillers codified by movies like Taken and Rambo: Last Blood, albeit with a slightly less sensationalist edge to them.

Like Taken and Last Blood, this is the story of an American girl who travels to a foreign country and finds herself entrapped in a parent’s worst nightmare. Like Taken and Last Blood, this is a story about an American father who has to travel to a foreign land in the hope of rescuing his daughter. Of course, Stillwater avoids the more obvious sensationalist trappings of these sorts of films. Matt Damon plays Bill Baker as a no-nonsense salt-of-the-earth guy with little patience, but not as a superhuman tactician. There are scenes where Bill throws punches, but they don’t end well for him.

A shady character.

In this sense, Stillwater occasionally feels like a more thoughtful interrogation of that fantasy of American fatherhood, of the idea of an all-American father figure travelling to another part of the world to dispense justice and restore order. Stillwater repeatedly stressed that Bill is “a f&!k-up”, to the point that Allison deliberately avoids burdening him with false hope and asks that he should be left out of the ongoing investigation. As Bill blunders through the movie, there’s a recurring sense that he is just making things worse.

In its best moments, this first act of Stillwater feels like a riff on this modern exploitation subgenre that consciously plays up the absurdity of the “fish out of water” dynamics. Bill travels regularly to Marseilles, but does not speak a word of French. This makes it very difficult for him to track down even basic leads, let alone convince locals to actually talk to him. There’s an interesting movie there, and Damon does good work in communicating the tension between Bill’s stubbornness and his frustration, his understanding of his own limitations and his refusal to let go of this possibility.

Bill has it locked down.

That said, there are moments when Stillwater feels decidedly heavy-handed. The movie’s release was obviously delayed by the ongoing global pandemic, but it would likely have seemed dated even if it had released last year. Much is made of the working class background of Bill and Allison, in a manner that seems designed to play off audience expectations about the sorts of characters who embark on these global adventures. Bill’s status as an American is particularly fascinating to the local French people. “Do you really own a gun?” asks Virginie, the local who serves as his unofficial translator.

The spectre of Donald Trump hangs over Stillwater, which feels inescapable for a number of reasons. After all, Trump’s politics feels somewhat inseparable for the paranoia about foreigners that informs and shapes thrillers like Taken and Last Blood. More than that, whether fairly or otherwise, the shadow of Trump inevitably creeps into any modern attempt to depict the white working class in Hollywood movies like Hillbilly Elegy. There’s something slightly uncomfortable in the way that films like Stillwater treat this as a strange form of cultural anthropology.

Sea-ing past this.

“Did you vote for Trump?” asks one of Virginie’s friends at one point during the movie, effectively bringing some of the movie’s subtext to the surface. It’s a risky gambit from the script, because it’s hard to know whether it would be better to just leave that question simmering beneath the surface rather than explicitly articulating it. However, despite broaching the question, Stillwater awkwardly sidesteps the answer. “No,” Bill replies. “I didn’t vote.” As a former convict, Bill has no vote. There’s a weirdness to this dialogue, as it allows the script to raise the topic without answering the question of whether Bill supports Trump.

The awkwardness is somewhat compounded by the movie’s attempts at cultural equivalence. After all, the emergence of racially-charged politics is not unique to the United States. There has a been a lurch to the right across the globe. As Stillwater repeatedly points out, Marseilles is just as racist. Immigrants into France face the same prejudices and the same challenges that await immigrants coming to America. There’s something potentially interesting there, demonstrating that Marseilles isn’t simply an abstract “over there”, but a real place with real problems that mirror those American audiences see at home.

A reclamation project.

However, the problem is that the script handles this interesting tension with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Stillwater makes a number of gestures at the complexity of this issues, but eventually just comes around to stating it bluntly to the audience when Bill and Virginie converse with a local bar owner who harbours very strong prejudices against non-white immigrants. “We’re the same!” he repeatedly and aggressively argues to Bill. However, he does so in French, meaning that the character who has to engage with him is Virginie rather than Bill himself. It’s a frustratingly blunt approach to an interesting question.

This bluntness might simply be a result of the film’s structure. Around fifty minutes in, the movie effectively wipes the slate clean and starts over. It even has a four-month time skip. The second act of the movie is perhaps its most interesting and its most engaging, because it feels like the part of the movie that exists least beholden to familiar conventions and expectations. In its second act, Stillwater essentially restarts itself as a weird intimate personal drama that follows Bill as he attempts to begin a new life in Marseilles. This includes reconnecting with Allison, and moving in with Virginie and her daughter Maya.

Stepping into a new role.

These sequences are very charming. Part of this is simply because they are designed to allow Damon to be charming in the role, as Bill makes an effort to integrate into a new status quo. There’s an abiding gentleness to this part of the movie, which is the only stretch of Stillwater that doesn’t feel rushed. The second act of Stillwater allows itself to luxuriate in character moments like Bill and Maya learning English from one another or Bill taking Allison out of prison on a day pass, allowing her to swim in the ocean and temporarily be free of everything pressing down on her.

Perhaps a better version of Stillwater would be content with this, to let its characters breathe and settle, to soak in the local ambiance and to adjust as best they can to the lives that they have unexpectedly found themselves leading. However, Stillwater is too driven by plot to let these moments breathe. The film then transitions into another weird prestige take on a genre pastiche. It’s perhaps too much to explain exactly what high-concept genre film the third act evokes, but it’s a very surreal turn from a movie that spent the better part of forty minutes on more mundane slice-of-life drama.

Don’t knock it.

The third act of Stillwater veers into the surreal and the heightened, becoming a much more conventional sort of thriller than even the first act had been. The movie’s late genre shift is striking because it also feels somewhat unearned. After the first two acts of Stillwater spent so long building up the reality and the texture of this world, seeming to deconstruct and interrogate movies like Taken or Last Blood, the final act leans into the conventions of those sorts of thrillers with little self-awareness or irony. (There is a high-stakes moment where Bill risks getting caught for doing something absurd and ridiculous, played entirely straight.)

This pivot into familiar genre conventions is frustrating, because the central drama remains compelling. The movie’s big central revelation is carefully seeded and organically developed, to the point that an astute audience member will likely reach the conclusion before Bill himself realises it, and that should be enough to sustain tension and drama across the runtime. Instead, Stillwater insists on adding absurd plot convolutions to its third act that serve to distract from the human drama and which push the film away from anything resembling verisimilitude.

Cloudy skies ahead.

Stillwater is three fascinating films that unfortunately don’t add up to one good one.

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