“Americans don’t like to change.”
One of the first lines of dialogue in “Stillwater,” which opened in theaters July 30, is from a Spanish-speaking migrant worker expressing amazement at the idea that Americans simply come back, rebuild, and carry on despite tornadoes repeatedly levelling their town. The worker wonders why residents don’t just go someplace else to avoid this regular devastation to their lives.
It’s a fair observation, although anyone making such a critique, particularly someone who’s left his home seeking greener pastures, ought to be reminded that it’s often the stubbornness of people that builds places we can call home in the first place.
The provocative dialogue establishes a central theme of “Stillwater”: the meaning of place. Where we’re from plays a major role in establishing our identities. Where we are at a moment in time also dictates what we can and cannot do, even if we haven’t changed on the inside.
Plot Inspired By the Amanda Knox Case
The where and who are subject to stress in “Stillwater,” directed and partially written by Tom McCarthy. Matt Damon portrays Bill Baker, a former oil rig worker who has been working construction (and tornado clean-up) jobs to get by living in the movie’s namesake of Stillwater, Oklahoma. He leaves for Marseille, France, to visit his daughter Allison, who has spent five years of a nine-year sentence in prison for murdering her female lover while attending university in the country.
It’s a journey Baker has made several times, only this time he discovers there may be a way to prove his daughter’s innocence. In the interest of not spoiling the film, it need only be said this revelation takes Baker on a journey that strains him physically and spiritually, challenging his relationships with those he cares for most.
If “Stillwater’s” plot sounds a lot like the Amanda Knox case, that’s because it’s directly inspired by the 2007 murder of a British exchange student in Italy, for which Knox was convicted and imprisoned. Although she was acquitted and released several years later, the case remains deeply controversial to this day, in part due to perceived miscarriages of justice committed by the Italian authorities.
“Stillwater’s” link to the case generated controversy just days before its theatrical release, with Knox posting a lengthy Twitter thread criticizing the film and its makers for attempting to profit off her “name, face, and story without my consent.”
A Tale of Two Cities
The Knox connection aside, “Stillwater” is still gripping and thought-provoking. Despite the title, nearly the entirety of the film takes place in Marseille. The audience is taken on a veritable tour of the city, seeing it in both sunlight and darkness, at its best and at its worst. In some ways, Marseille is the star of the film, providing not only a picturesque setting but also establishing the contours of the story.
As a foreigner (an American no less), Bill Baker must come to grips with the fact that France, despite having Best Western hotels and Subway, plays by an entirely different set of rules, culturally and legally. The language barrier alone is suffocating, but hardly the greatest obstacle.
France may be a “first world” country, yet it proves insufficient to rely solely on institutions for help. Instead, Baker must rely on the good faith and kindness of others, including strangers, highlighting the importance of community and personal relationships, whether in Stillwater or Marseille.
The setting also creates a tense atmosphere, representing something of a crossroads for France. An ethnically diverse city with large numbers of immigrants and foreign residents (many from North Africa, a legacy of France’s colonial history), Marseille is an epicenter of the ongoing debate about the French national identity and its future. Like much of the West, France has walked a tightrope, attempting to atone for the darker side of its history while still defending its culture, honor, and way of life as they come under fire.
There exists a perceptible political undertone to “Stillwater.” Aside from a few instances where social issues are bluntly treated, “Stillwater” handles them overall with a sterling level of nuance. It acknowledges that, while problems exist, nobody has a good answer for any of them. Opening dialogue aside, “Stillwater” doesn’t cast judgment towards the United States or France. If anything, the message seems to be that both countries, two linchpins of Western civilization, are undergoing respective crises.
The contrast between rural, largely monocultural Stillwater and urban, multicultural Marseille fashion the two locales as worlds apart in every sense. Yet they also have much in common. Stillwater is a city with a median income of $34,309, well below the national average, along with a high rate of poverty. Likewise, Marseille’s vibrancy cannot hide its significant poverty and unemployment, both higher than the national average.
From the American heartland to a bustling European metropolis, large numbers of people on both sides of the Atlantic are struggling and facing increasingly uncertain futures. Meanwhile, they’ve also diverged from their own countries.
Stillwater is “flyover country,” culturally and politically distant from America’s “blue” coasts. A television tuned to Fox News at Bill Baker’s mother-in-law’s residence is a sign of to which “America” Stillwater belongs. Similarly, Marseille isn’t like Paris, as noted by Virginie (Camille Cottin), a French woman who aids Bill. An attorney who worked on Allison’s case remarks, at a pivotal moment in the film, “This could’ve only happened in Marseille.”
A Convincing and Compelling Cast
But the broader contextualization would’ve been lost in translation if not for strong performances from the cast. At 50 years old, Damon shows no signs of atrophy.
Admittedly, it’s hard at times to distance Bill Baker from the Jason Bourne character Damon has made emblematic. But Stillwater constantly reminds the audience it’s an entirely different film, in part because Damon’s role is considerably deeper than anything he’s done in years. He provides an empathetic portrayal of the working-class middle American, steeped in politeness, with an unwavering faith in Christ, unconditional love for family, and a can-do spirit.
Abigail Breslin delivers a sympathetic portrayal of Allison Baker, proving how far the actress has come since she broke out at age 10 in 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine.” Breslin and Damon establish a convincing father-daughter dynamic, one filled with love and strain all at once.
Yet the true emotional center of the story may be Bill’s relationship with nine-year-old Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) and her mother Virginie, who provide shelter, help, and companionship for Bill in his long quest to free his daughter. Notwithstanding their differences, the three form a seemingly unbreakable bond. Maya especially reinforces Bill’s sense of purpose, providing him a second chance to be a better man and discover blessings and joy he never thought he’d find.
“Stillwater” begins as an engaging crime thriller but its emotional investment in Bill Baker’s stubborn fight to save Allison — while building himself a new life and finding family in a place he’ll never truly be able to call “home” — is what connects us with the story. Despite its lengthy 140 minutes, Stillwater remains engrossing throughout.
Some viewers may find the ending lacking or otherwise problematic, but it does give viewers much to contemplate. “Stillwater” may not be an instant classic, but it’s an example of an intriguing, tense, character-driven drama with timely themes done very well.