It’s hard to know where to start with Stillwater. Grim, labored and ludicrous, writer/director Tom McCarthy’s first prestige effort since Spotlight is a mightily strange, stagnant beast: By turns a family drama, a based-on-a-true-story legal thriller, a romantic dramedy and an attempt to bend the hallmarks of Mediterranean noir toward political resonance. That the film is largely ineffectual in each of these modes is of course an issue, though ultimately one less ruinous than McCarthy’s grand-scale bungling of the tonal shifts required to pull off such a curious hybrid narrative.
Stillwater tells the story of Bill Baker (Matt Damon), an Oklahoma construction worker we first meet standing in the ruins of a house leveled by a tornado. Billy sifts dutifully through the wreckage, but as he travels back across this economically ravaged swath of the American South, there’s an omniscient sense of decay to the landscape, mainly distinguished by oil rigs, road signs and fast-food joints. Grunting and clenching his way through these opening scenes, whether he’s laboring on a work site or shoveling McDonald’s into his mouth like fuel, Damon at first takes a primarily physical approach to Bill, playing the character as the stereotypical embodiment of an all-American roughneck.
Clad in cheap flannels and jeans as well as off-brand Oakleys and a faded baseball cap (the look could collectively be dubbed “truck-stop chic”), Bill’s most noticeable accessories are his goatee and his bulging biceps, adorned with tattoos of a bald eagle—“That’s America,” he explains lamely—and a skull with a knife through it. Bill’s the kind of guy who bows his head to pray before every meal, then slathers on the ketchup and muscles that cap back into place. And while Damon occasionally emanates the mushy-hearted sensitivity he’s known for as a leading man, he mostly just settles on looking pained as he shuffles from scene to scene.
Though named for it, Stillwater spends only a few scenes in Bill’s home, soon skipping town to track him all the way to the French port city of Marseille. There, he submits to a series of security measures in order to visit his estranged daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), who’s midway through a prison sentence for a murder she claims she didn’t commit. Five years into a nine-year sentence, Allison maintains her innocence in the death of her roommate and lover, a French Arab woman named Lina, while insisting that a man named Akim (Idir Azougli), the existence of whom investigators failed to establish, is actually responsible for Lina’s death.
It’s worth noting that the political grist of Stillwater’s legal-thriller narrative has been informed, and ghoulishly so, by the tragic case of Amanda Knox, a young American acquitted after spending almost four years in an Italian prison for the 2007 murder of her roommate, fellow exchange student Meredith Kercher. In an ill-advised effort to add further complexity to this fraught scenario, Allison’s romantic relationship with Lina, coupled with Allison’s whiteness and privilege, is said to have heightened a media frenzy around her trial. Bill and his daughter generally agree she was railroaded, though Stillwater later casts aspersions on her innocence in such a manner that makes the film’s echoing of a real criminal case feel all the more suspect.
While clumsily pursuing new shreds of evidence in Allison’s case, Bill strikes up a friendship with local stage actress and single mother Virginie (Camille Cottin, giving a more subtly nuanced performance than Stillwater knows what to do with), whose daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) idolizes Bill. This soon paves the way for an unusual arrangement in which Bill takes up residence in their home, enlisting Virginie as an interpreter even as he puts some elbow grease into co-parenting Maya and fixing up the apartment. Soon, Bill and Virginie begin a romance, and Bill’s demeanor visibly brightens as he cautiously accepts what appears to be a second shot at a better life. Eventually, a chance encounter with Akim at a soccer match complicates this reset, leading Bill down a path of violence so jarringly incompatible with the film’s previous sense of docility that it feels spliced in from a separate movie; Damon appears equally flummoxed by this turn of events, retreating further into Bill at exactly the moment the film aims to deliver some sort of payoff for his character’s emotional arc.
Now, depending on the project, Damon’s quiet, amiable blankness as a leading man can feel alternately like a strength and a shortcoming. That’s why the Bourne trilogy—a rich set of films about the individual quest for self-knowledge, which open with his amnesiac assassin floating face-down in the Mediterranean, suspended as if in amniotic fluid—remains his finest hour, and why what we remember most about his savant janitor in Good Will Hunting is his youthful insecurity, that helpless flitting between red-hot emotions as Will grasps around for an identity of his own. The Talented Mr. Ripley, in which Damon played a chameleonic sociopath, proved the actor capable of exercising an iron grip over these kinds of characters, weaponizing that genial charm until the deeper vacancy behind it becomes hypnotically sinister.
But Damon’s lesser roles offer him little opportunity to access this element of his range, and the actor feels much more unproductively anonymous when cast in flippant four-hankie schmaltz (We Bought a Zoo) or middling prestige-pap (Downsizing, Suburbicon and The Monuments Men). There’s a disappointingly bland exteriority to Damon’s performance here which grows all the more noticeable as the film asks us to believe him in various roles—romantic hero, fish out of water, morally compromised vigilante—without ever granting Bill the spark of inner life that would make any of these roles believable. The blame for this lies most with Stillwater’s script, co-written by McCarthy and three others—Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noé Debré—none of whom find a way inside their main character.
While much is made of Bill’s reputation as a “fuck-up,” and he’s said to be recovering from both alcohol and drug abuse throughout the film, Stillwater doesn’t establish a workable protagonist in Bill so much as a physically stoic, intellectually sputtering plot engine. The writers are especially cowardly to construct Bill as such a wretched hodgepodge of rural American clichés, and it’s through this characterization that the cruelty inherent in McCarthy’s “sentimentalism” as a filmmaker is most apparent. One questions what value can be gleaned from a film that employs straw men to soapbox about the dangers of profiling.
For a time, McCarthy appears to be approaching Stillwater as a story about the damage that American tourists can do abroad, piledriving blithely through the cultures and customs of other countries without ever seeking to grasp what differentiates life for those outside the States (let alone learn the language). The impracticality of communicating across barriers—particularly those of race, class, education, gender and race—is one common thread between Bill’s excursions around Marseille, some of which are played for dim-bulb comedy, and the decidedly more dramatic (and ickily ripped from the headlines) plight of his daughter. But Stillwater is self-defeating throughout, its disparate tones sawing jaggedly away at one another, and its efforts to harness political resonance—about American exceptionalism, the nature of injustice and the ways various forms of bias prevent us from seeing one another clearly—stymied by a script that turns its conflicts and characters into misshapen manufactured objects.
Ultimately, the filmmaker’s larger intentions are too muddled to parse. McCarthy’s studiously milquetoast sensibilities have previously propelled him all the way to the Oscars—with Spotlight, a match made in heaven with his workmanlike, aggressively beige direction—but they’ve also steered him into calamity with projects like The Cobbler, an Adam Sandler vehicle in which the comedian plays a Lower East Side shoemaker permitted by a magical sewing machine to literally walk a mile in his client’s shoes (because cobblers are “guardians of soles,” you see). Beyond its general air of callousness and the wretched screenplay, McCarthy’s direction of The Cobbler comes apart at the seams, leaning too heavily on canted angles and shoddy camera placements that only called attention to the artificiality of the sets and premise. A similar fate befalls Stillwater, which is often distractingly flat and amateurish in framing its actors in such off-kilter ways that it saps the force from their most dramatic scenes.
Astonishingly misguided and flat-footed, the film is ultimately more aligned with the magical shoe movie than either Spotlight or his previous set of modestly charming indies (The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win). It’s turgid, mean-spirited schmaltz—a hokey and hectoring saga that evinces little respect or affection for its characters while drowning the performers’ best efforts to humanize them beneath a deluge of baffling plot decisions.
In a rational world, this film—which received a five-minute standing ovation at its Cannes premiere earlier this month—would be greeted as one of the summer season’s biggest misfires, though the maddening inexplicability of its awfulness is such that some critics may simply surrender, throwing in that Damon’s performance could make him an awards contender later this year. (Unlikely.) For the rest of us, good luck grasping why McCarthy selected something like Stillwater as his grand return to more adult, dramatic territory. Beefy and bulging, yet so narratively tortured it lacks all but the most basic sense of pace, the film simply sits up there on the screen, its script’s stockiness marking the film as too ham-fisted and soft-headed to land even one of its thematic punches. Stillwater is such a bizarre experience that one wonders whether McCarthy has delivered anything close to the film he set out to make—or whether the film’s more perplexing leaps are owed, perhaps, to studio interference. As the film trickles toward its howler of a conclusion, any hopes McCarthy might somehow salvage this story evaporate. Stillwater sinks like a stone.
Director: Tom McCarthy
Writer: Tom McCarthy, Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré
Stars: Matt Damon, Camille Cottin, Abigail Breslin
Release Date: July 30, 2021
Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Chicago, who’s been writing professionally for seven years and hopes to stay at it for a few years more. Frequently over-excited and under-caffeinated, he sits down to surf the Criterion Channel but ends up, inevitably, on Shudder. You can find him on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.