Synopsis: An American man travels to France to help exonerate his imprisoned daughter.
Stillwater wasn’t what I expected. I was prepared for a straightforward light action movie with Matt Damon as a decent guy from the heartland running around after suspects in Marseille. He doesn’t have to do as much running or fighting as he did in the Bourne movies. I didn’t expect the movie to become a personality profile –which it does to its merit. I guess I should’ve expected Tom McCarthy, the screenwriter-director of the excellent exposé drama Spotlight, to turn-out a film with more depth than your average action flick.
Matt Damon plays Bill Baker, an oil rig worker from Stillwater, Oklahoma (home of Oklahoma State University). His performance is good, but I kept getting in my own way, thinking: Ha, ha, there’s Harvard-educated, Oscar-winning Bostonian Matt Damon as self-described “dumbass” Bill Baker who makes his living with hard labor. Now he’s clearing the debris of wrecked houses. Bet he worked out his upper body a lot in his private gym so he could easily hoist lumber. Did I read that he uprooted from the East Coast to settle in L.A.?
But it is not Matt Damon’s fault that he is so well-known. So I determined that I would try to forget that Bill Baker is, in fact, movie star Matt Damon. Unless his bestie Ben Affleck shows up in the movie as a French gendarme; that is too much.
Yes, I will honor the movie’s insistence that this man is former drinker, ex hell raiser and semi-absentee father, Bill Baker. Especially since Matt D has used his fame for good works like Water.org which endeavors to help communities in the developing world access clean water. Unlike a certain someone who has had his entire back inked with a phoenix that rises from his hip and hovers across his shoulder blades. Poor mythic creature, maybe they will get away like Jen Garner.
So… Bill is a roughneck…or possibly a roustabout. Whichever puts up oil rigs and not circus tents. He’s been laid off and picks up whatever itinerant labor he can. Even when he visits his mom back in Stillwater, he seems alone. (Unlike Matt Damon who dated actors Minnie Driver and Winona Ryder before settling down with wife Luciana Barroso, who was not an actor, but a “civilian.” Matt’s word, not mine.)
I was surprised when Bill got on a flight to Marseille, France. But who am I to judge? Maybe he has had a longtime dream to stroll through the city’s Jardins des Vestiges marveling at Hellenic archaeological artifacts. Alas, he is going to visit his daughter in prison.
Bill’s daughter, Allison, had been studying abroad, but now she is incarcerating abroad. She was arrested and found guilty of murdering her girlfriend. The set-up evokes the sensational real life case of Amanda Knox, an American student in Italy who was convicted in 2007 of killing her apartment mate before ultimately being exonerated after several years of imprisonment. Fortunately, Stillwater avoids a tabloid POV and focuses on Bill, not his daughter who is played by Abigail Breslin with an effecting mix of gravitas and immaturity. This is true of her performance in 2017’s Dirty Dancing too, but she is not giddy like Baby here because she is not dancing with Johnny Castle; she is in prison. And while Baby may have imagined a certain je ne sais quoi charm to a French correctional facility for les femmes, Stillwater’s Allison experiences it as a hellhole. Albeit one where she can practice her French.
Meanwhile, Bill is a duck out of water in France, charging around in his American Midwest wear and not knowing a lick of French. In fact, he is a man of few words in his native language as well. Bill mostly sticks with basic expressions like “Yes, sir,” “No, ma’am” or “Gol Damn It!” when he is especially exercised.
When Bill visits Allison in prison, he gives her essentials like socks and awkwardly fills her in on prospects for the upcoming football season back home. Understandably she is more interested in getting her case reviewed and getting released. Allison anxiously informs her dad that she heard through the grapevine that a guy at a bar, Akim, had been bragging about getting away with killing a woman. She thinks this must be the man who stole her purse earlier that fateful day, allowing him access to her apartment.
Bill says he’ll get right on it. Allison doesn’t really trust her dad to handle this because he was off roughnecking and getting into periodic trouble with the law while her grandma was raising her. (You’ll have to see the movie to find out about her absent mom.) Anyway, she’s used to her dad being a disappointment and helpfully, though not charitably, characterizes him as a f**k up. But he is trying…
Bill goes to Allison’s hard-to-reach lawyer and tells her about the new lead. She gives a bothered Gallic shrug & sigh and tells Bill that what’s done is done and Allison needs to get used to prison life. Now, I don’t know much about French law beyond my assumption that the Napoleonic Code has a lot to do with it, but I felt that the attorney’s c’est la vie attitude was, at the very least, a disservice to her client. And a real black eye for French tourism. Or at least for non-French people who are trying to get family members out of jail.
Bill needs to work fast. Allison is beside herself, telling her dad that she cannot stand one more day in prison — by God, it’s worse than Oklahoma! Bill determines that he will solve the case himself. This will be quite the uphill battle since he knows no French. But this is not Bill’s fault! Many high schools in Oklahoma don’t offer foreign language classes which is not surprising since the state’s voters elect representatives who zealously gut public school funding. Oh, and Bill has a tendency to resort to violence when problem-solving. Also, no matter how many weeks he is in France, he keeps wearing a trucker cap, so his undercover work doesn’t go well.
Short on time and money, Bill wanders the projects day and night, asking people if they know Akim. Sadly, no one is helping Bill and there is nowhere convenient to stop for a burger, fries and a Coke. In the middle of his night-time meanderings, he is confronted by a gang who harass him. Their grasp of English only extends to curse words and homophobic remarks, but Bill asks them if they know Akim. They respond by beating him to a pulp.
Enter Virginie and Maya (Camille Cottin and Lilou Siauvaud) … Bill made the acquaintance of theater actress and soft-touch Virginie at the budget hotel where he lodges. She’s a free spirit and a loving mother. Her daughter, Maya (around seven years old), is bright and darling. And, fortunately for us, not precocious in the way that scripts so often make child actors perform. She is intrigued by Bill and calls him her “favorite American.” He becomes very fond of her. And what of his feelings for Virginie? No spoilers.
You can tell that Bill doesn’t like to ask for favors, but he is desperate and ailing, so he asks his new friend, Virginie if she can help translate for him on his investigations around Marseille. In return, he helps her and Maya however he can.
Now, Bill does have a heart of gold, but lots of twists and turns will be thrown his way and besides a translator, he could use a therapist and a life coach. Bill is a hard worker, but hasn’t done himself any favors over the years and his emotions are very bottled up. Virginie’s friends treat Bill like a curiosity; asking him if he owns guns and whom has he voted for. Bill answers in his plainspoken fashion and her friends giggle. Hhrumph… Even though I initially thought of Bill as a yahoo, he is not an imbecile, and I found myself defending Bill: See if any of you can ride out a tornado while tripping pipe forty feet off the ground!
Ultimately, Stillwater examines how Bill changes when confronting his daughter’s desperate plight. The film leaves us wondering how to judge anyone for the lengths they are willing to go to for a beloved family member. In Bill’s case, he may need to coldcock a bastard or even learn French. When Bill finally responded to a French person with “Merci” –well, he pronounced it Mercy — I wanted to cheer.
And, by the end of the movie, I realized that I was pulling for Bill Baker and not thinking about movie star Matt Damon. Which is just as well because he really puts his foot in his mouth with his tone deaf remarks about #metoo, diversity and LGBTQ slurs. Maybe Matt Damon could learn a thing or two from Bill Baker. But not Ben Affleck. Definitely not Affleck.
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: Thoughtful screenplay with commendable supporting performances from Camille Cottin, Lilou Siauvaud & Abigail Breslin.
Humor Highlight: Damon’s character’s awkward attempts at small talk with his daughter.