A strained but strangely affecting turducken of a movie that bakes a dad-on-a-mission thriller together with a heartwarming fish-out-of-water story and then a brutal crime drama before glazing the whole thing with a marvelously goateed Matt Damon, Tom McCarthy’s “Stillwater” is the kind of original Hollywood production that would make you say “they don’t make them like that anymore” if only they had ever made them quite this way in the first place. That it’s a French co-production surely accounts for a portion of the film’s structural oddness — several plot points feel lost in translation, even if the whole thing somehow manages to still make sense — but quirks of financing can only go so far to explain a 140-minute transatlantic saga that’s equal parts “Taken,” “Paddington,” and “Prisoners,” one after the other.
No movie with that particular genetic makeup is going to be all that subtle, and McCarthy — who co-wrote the script with Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré, and Marcus Hinchy — definitely seems to be drifting closer to “The Cobbler” than “Spotlight” during the opening scenes. Sitting in the back of a van as the Spanish-speaking migrant workers in the front seats talk about how much Americans hate to change (hold that thought!), widowed oil roughneck Bill Baker is such a broad caricature of a red-blooded Oklahoman that Damon looks more like a millionaire in disguise on an episode of “Undercover Boss.” We’re talking camo hats, prayers over a Sonic burger, bicep tattoos of an eagle holding a skull, and a pair of black sunglasses that hide any trace of human feeling or any other feminine nonsense like that. Even foreigners can’t help but ask if he voted for Trump (sorry, but this is a spoiler-free review).
And wherever he goes, Bill brings America with him. The biggest change he’s willing to make when he flies to France is a switch from Sonic to Subway. He even stays at a Best Western in Marseille, and not only because anywhere else would cost too much over the course of the two weeks he’s abroad to visit his daughter Alison in jail (a fraught Abigail Breslin, believable down to the grime on her teeth as a thinly veiled Amanda Knox type who’s served five years of a nine year sentence for allegedly murdering her college girlfriend).
But Bill’s eau de American isn’t all bad; while he may be hiding a troubled past under those shades, and eager to impose his will on foreign countries that never wanted him there to begin with, he’s also a genuine helper. He pays his mother-in-law’s bills even though he’s broke. He gets the little girl in the next room over (the adorable Lilou Siauvaud as Maya) a spare hotel key when her theater actress single mother Virginie (“Call My Agent!” star Camille Cottin) comes back late one day, and when she and Maya move to their new flat Bill even stops by to help fix her broken wiring. So he’ll be damned if he’s not going to help his own daughter — who he’s failed in the worst way for most of her life — when she sneaks him some new evidence on the real killer. Alison’s lawyer thinks it’s too circumstantial to sway a judge? No problem, Bill will hunt down the “tall, light-skinned Arab kid” who stabbed his daughter’s ex himself. With a description like that and a handful of helpful racists who are eager to throw any immigrant kid in prison for the rest of their life, what could go wrong?
Needless to say, Bill Baker isn’t exactly Jason Bourne — he’s not even Jeremy Renner — and things go sideways in a hurry. But as “Stillwater” gradually runs deeper, it begins to flow in some most unusual directions. It wouldn’t be revealing too much to say that Bill’s bond with Virginie and Maya strengthens over time, as weeks stretch into months and the two single parents begin to form a platonic kind of family. McCarthy’s naturalistic direction allows the movie to seamlessly pivot between modes even though the script is fragmented into clear act breaks, and there’s a palpable sense of warmth to the long scenes of Bill picking Maya up from school or helping Virginie rehearse for an audition.
Damon’s performance is graced with a quiet softness that offsets the sheer volume of the character he’s playing, and the light comedy of the well-intentioned culture clashes between he and his new roommates is so endearing that you almost forget the tragic reason why Bill came to France in the first place. The light that emanates from his hope for a second chance sparks a new warmth in everyone around him, and there’s a vivid sense that his own ability to make peace with his demons might inspire others to do the same (credit to Cottin for making a wildly contrived living situation feel like a real makeshift home). Acceptance is a hard thing to come by, but even the smallest measure of it can change the way you see the world.
Of course, no matter how beguilingly entertaining it is to watch “Stillwater” drift away from the movie you thought it would be, you know that it’s only a matter of time before the devil gets his due. There are clumsy hints of what’s to come along the way — including a scene of terrible self-harm that offers bafflingly little follow-up, and feels even more half-baked than any of the film’s hesitant overtures toward the soul of America’s forgotten man — and the switch that flips the third act into gear isn’t quite as convincing as it needs to be to fulfill its purpose as a test of faith.
All the same, there’s a whackadoo elegance to the way Bill tears at the scab over his soul during the final minutes. Whatever “sure, Jan”-level twists McCarthy throws our way at the 11th hour (and there’s at least one doozy) are mitigated by a final scene that hits with a surprising amount of force, as Damon and Breslin share a moment that cuts to the heart of what “Stillwater” was always really about, and offers these broken people an outside chance at peace if by some miracle they still have the strength to live with it.
“Stillwater” premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Focus Features will release it in theaters in the U.S. on Friday, July 30.
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