By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 7/28/21 – Opening Friday in theatres all over is Tom McCarthy’s Stillwater, a 2021 American crime drama film that recently premiered on July 8, 2021, as an “Out of Competition” entry at the Cannes Film Festival 2021, where the film received a five-minute standing ovation by the audience. Distributed by Focus Films, Stillwater stars Matt Damon, Camille Cottin, and Abigail Breslin in this timely drama with strong performances from its leads. McCarthy is well-known for his Oscar-winning film Spotlight (2015) and his work in television series such as The Wire, Boston Public, and Law and Order. The film takes its name from Stillwater, Oklahoma, where the main character Bill Baker (Matt Damon) is an unemployed oil rig “roughneck,” who Damon describes as a man typical of such workers in Oklahoma’s oil business and whose character is very “specific” to that place in America. Bill Baker has lived a hard life marred by drug and alcohol abuse. Intent on making up for his past mistakes, Bill makes a trip to Marseille, France, to visit his estranged daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), who is serving a nine-year prison sentence for the murder of her girlfriend, Lena – a crime she insists she did not commit. The father-daughter relationship is especially problematic, as Allison was basically raised by her grandmother in Stillwater, after the death of her mother and having been neglected by her father Bill for many years. She does not trust Bill but he is her only hope for getting out of prison.
Allison seizes on a new tip that could exonerate her and presses Bill to engage their lawyer. But when their lawyer rebuffs them, Bill takes matters into his own hands and makes it his personal mission to find the real culprit – a man Allison has identified as Akim. Confronted with language barriers and cultural differences, Bill is outmatched until he strikes up an unlikely friendship with French theater actress Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her young daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). As he combs the streets of Marseille searching for the presumed murderer Akim, Bill finds himself on an unexpected path, growing ever closer to Virginie and Maya. It’s a journey of self-discovery and liberation from a life that long seemed preordained. Yet when his need to prove his daughter’s innocence collides with his commitment to Virginie and Maya, Bill is left with only difficult choices that not only threaten to destroy his new life, but also his last shot at redemption.
In an interview, McCarthy explains that he had begun working on a script ten years prior and loosely based on the Amanda Knox case, the young American woman who was acquitted after spending four years in an Italian prison after the murder in 2007 of her roommate in Perugia, the British exchange student Meredith Kercher. But he set the project aside until he gained a clearer insight into the direction of his story and began working with Marcus Hinchey and his two French co-writers Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré. As he explained in a Q&A, “The film deals with many things – with what we perceive to be America today. And that is personified in the character of Bill Baker and what he brings to France when he comes to visit his daughter who is in prison for a murder that she claims she did not commit. At some level, ultimately, it’s a film about relationships, a film about connection, it’s a film about liberation, possibly redemption or maybe not.”
The characters of both Bill Baker and his daughter Allison are seriously flawed individuals and, in some ways, are representative of what America is to French eyes, which see the world differently. To some extent, Bill Baker personifies the “ugly American” in its often-crude, blunt, isolated bubble of a life as a “roughneck” in Oklahoma – and his inability to understand a world so different in Marseille, France. As Matt Damon pointed out, “Bill is where he is from. He is a felon, so he didn’t vote.” But the French woman Virginie wonders if he would have voted for Trump. He walks the streets of Marseilles with the same stride he had in Oklahoma and is clueless about French culture: He is completely out of his element.” The character of Allison, explains actress Abigail Breslin, feels that she is “messed up in a unique way like her father.” She explains, that the relationship with her father Bill is “not your average father-daughter relationship because she doesn’t want to be hurt anymore. [He] does not really understand what he is in. There is a lot of shame, grief, pain, and guilt. Yet bill feels some responsibility for where his daughter is at.”
In most scenes, Bill is trying to be tough, but he is mostly reacting to Abigail. He has vulnerability, but it takes his experience with the French woman Virginie and her charming nine-year-old daughter Maya to begin to pull him out of his limited world of Stillwater, Oklahoma. The character of Virginie is very important in mediating between Bill and the locals, acting as his interpreter as well, and later Bill decides to stay on in Marseille and live in her apartment. Matt Damon is cast to be somewhat sympathetic although he is clearly a small-minded loser. His daughter doesn’t trust him and he is clearly capable of reckless acts of violence. These markers, like the DNA sample that Bill later seeks in the story, serve to link father and daughter as two characters doomed by fate to misread the world and fail to understand others. At the film’s end, Bill returns to Stillwater, Oklahoma, and we are left to wonder about the moral ambiguity of both Bill and his daughter Allison. Tom McCarthy says that his film is not about justice. He wants audiences to think about the moral imperatives that shape our lives and our actions.