Movie Review: Stillwater
By Matthew Huntley
August 12, 2021
There’s a constant, underlying question running throughout “Stillwater,” which, “Can this be real?” The film poses this not only to the protagonist, but also the viewer, and for both parties, the answer is just on the verge of “yes.” However, it’s never certain, and in fact it’s the film’s uncertainty that drives this dramatic thriller, which makes us think and reflect in ways we didn’t anticipate. If the story doesn’t seem entirely credible, it’s at least consistently interesting and we’re confident the filmmakers are in control of the narrative, no matter how ambiguous things get.
When it opens, the outwardly simple Bill Baker (Matt Damon) goes about his daily routine: working odd jobs in and around his hometown of Stillwater, Oklahoma; ordering takeout food for dinner; falling asleep in front of the TV; and driving to and from interviews he hopes will lead to more permanent employment after being let go from his oil rig position. Bill is single, slightly overweight, and reserved, yet he’s respectful and hardworking, although we suspect his work ethic—and perhaps his devotion to God and praying—likely came about after years of struggling with drugs and alcohol. The way he talks and operates makes us think he’s paying a penance for past transgressions.
Knowing what we know about Bill from only the opening scenes, we don’t take him to be particularly cultured or refined, which is why it comes as a surprise us when he books a trip to Marseille of all places. What kind of business could this blue-collar worker from the mid-Western United States have in France? Questions such as these catch us off guard but they’re also what help “Stillwater” stand out and hold our attention, because they challenge our expectations of where we assume the story is going.
As it turns out, Bill has a very important reason to travel to Marseille. This is where his college-age daughter, Allison (a strong and now very adult Abigail Breslin), is serving a near-decade long prison sentence for the murder of her ex-girlfriend and roommate, Lina, whom we only ever see in photographs. Bill visits Allison more regularly now that his mother-in-law, Sharon (Deanna Dunagan), with whom Allison previously lived, has become physically incapable. It’s evident Bill never wanted the responsibility of traveling abroad to bring Allison care packages or do her laundry, but after several trips, he’s become willing and dedicated.
Allison may see things otherwise, as her relationship with her father is amicable yet loveless. It’s clear she’s carrying a lot of pain and remorse, and we presume Bill’s past addictions likely made him abusive toward either Allison or her late mother. But another refreshing aspect of “Stillwater” is it leaves many of its details inexplicit and, in a way, the filmmakers encourage and trust us to deduce things four ourselves, using our own hearts and minds, along with the subtle exchanges and nuances of the characters. As we’ll see, “Stillwater” becomes less about facts and plot and more about processing shifting emotions, which are hardly definite or clear-cut.
This isn’t to say the movie is without a plot. Its thriller side comes about when Allison hands Bill a letter she’s written to her lawyer, Leparq (Ann Le Ny), and she stresses its importance because it contains newly obtained information that could potentially exculpate her. However, because the letter’s contents are based on hearsay, Leparq tells Bill no judge would allow Allison’s case to be re-opened and promptly hands it back to him.
Bill can’t read the letter himself because it’s written it in French, but it’s just as well, since it essentially deems her father incapable of handling her case properly, which is why she beseeched Leparq to take charge. Nevertheless, at his hotel, Bill asks a French woman named Virginie (Camille Cottin) to translate it. He recently met this single mother after helping her young daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), back into her locked room.
Virginie reads Bill the letter, which lists the names of contacts Allison has a reason to believe will shed new light and evidence on Lina’s murder and perhaps absolve her of the crime. Bill, motivated by wanting to restore Allison’s faith in him, and to save his daughter from having to serve another five years in prison, decides to undertake the investigation on his own. However, because this is a romantic drama as much as it is a thriller, Bill eventually enlists the help of Virginie, and as the procedural gets under way, so too does Bill and Virginie’s relationship and these two lonely souls inevitably grow closer.
More about the plot, I leave for you to discover, but what I can tell you is the story of “Stillwater” becomes increasingly involving, not to mention peculiar. Over the course of several months, Bill forms a familial relationship with Virginie and Maya, going so far as to move in with them and become an unofficial partner and father figure. He works construction during the day; picks up Maya after school; helps maintain their apartment building; prepares dinner as Virginie tries to earn a living as a stage and TV actress; and in between all his domestic duties, does what he can to keep Allison’s case afloat, which follows an encounter with Lina’s suspected killer that rendered Bill physically injured and his relationship with Allison all but tarnished.
For the most part, Bill’s life seems to be changing for the better. Virginie and Maya have given him purpose and focus, and he believes Allison will come back around once she recognizes he’s stayed in Marseille for her. We wish and hope for Bill’s salvation, but fortunately the film chooses complexity and realism over simplicity and artifice and doesn’t make his journey so easy. All throughout, the film continues to hold its essential question—"Can this be real?”—steady, which makes it more watchable and engaging.
What’s also interesting about “Stillwater” is that director Tom McCarthy lends it two distinct yet compatible moods and tones. On the one hand, it possesses an air that’s inherently tense and ominous, suggesting the constant possibility of something dark, tragic, or sinister. We have a sneaking suspicion Bill is always about to crack and get pulled back into his old, violent, drunken ways. On the other, it’s a touching, redemptive, and hopeful fable and we believe Bill has learned, experienced, and demonstrated enough love and kindness to be rehabilitated. Both aspects of the film feel possible, which gives our whole experience with it a sense of wonderment.
As Bill, Damon answers the call of McCarthy’s calculated direction and the multifaceted screenplay by McCarthy, Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noé Debré by making the character a pensive, three-dimensional loner whose intricacies grow as his life evolves. He’s able to give Bill both a vicious and threatening side, and a sensitive and compassionate one, reminding us of his broad range as an actor.
The other members of the cast are just as effective, and I’ve a feeling we’ll be seeing more from the fresh, angelic faces of Cottin and Siauvaud. As a mother and daughter who never seem wholly convinced of the new man in their lives, they play Virginie and Maya with just the right amount of naiveté and honesty, as well as playfulness and doubt.
But I was particularly impressed by Breslin, who has all but shed her childhood innocence and shows she has what it takes to be a full-blooded actress, capable of conveying raw, unaffected emotion. Her advice to Virginie about Bill, “Be careful. Sooner or later he’ll fu*ck up,” is particularly hard-hitting, and she delivers it masterfully.
“Stillwater” like Bill, may appear simple and straightforward, but it’s often profound and sometimes indescribable. It engages for all the usual thriller and romantic drama reasons, but it’s unique in the sense that it constantly makes us wonder how the overall story will end—happily or tragically; with Allison’s case solved or open-ended; with Bill sober or falling back into his old ways? As events unfold, relationships grow, and trust builds and gets re-earned, we question whether Bill can sustain his new life in Marseille, and even if this weren’t a thriller, this question would still put us on edge, because it’s human nature to be cautious when things are going well in our lives and to automatically suspect the other shoe will drop because inner peace and happiness are finite.
McCarthy and his team have crafted an uncommonly layered film, the components of which may not always seem to go together, but what makes “Stillwater” so watchable is our wanting to know if they can. It’s bold and engaging in this way, and despite some inconsistencies and moments of waywardness, we trust the filmmakers know what they’re doing. They’ve made an absorbing film that has both obvious and ambiguous messages and that warrant it rewatchable because we feel there would always be something new to take away from it — about the locations, about the characters, about ourselves - and if there’s anything certain about “Stillwater,” it’s that this was one of the filmmakers’ hopes when making it.