For nearly twenty years, Participant Media has been producing quality films that have been socially relevant while also striving to entertain and educate. Directors like Steven Soderbergh, Steven Spielberg, Ana DuVernay, and Stillwater’s Tom McCarthy, under the Participant banner, have found award-winning success with films that feel relevant and urgent, but those filmmakers also know the truth – that you can’t inform an audience if they don’t show up to see your movie.
The trailers for Stillwater show construction worker/father Bill Baker (Matt Damon) going through Europe with American pride and moxie, doing what he can to get his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) released from a French prison, held for more than five years for a murder she did not commit.
They’re selling a movie on Damon going through Europe kicking ass and taking names, doing whatever it takes for his daughter. But that’s not the movie we get. The movie we get is a nuanced, sensitive look at the way Americans perceive the world outside the United States, and the way the world also looks at Americans.
Are Europeans the elite socialists that the 24-hour-news cycle would have you believe? And are Americans incapable to change, only interested in surface-level justice and unwilling to explore anything outside their nationalism and their capitalist ideals? Stillwater wisely allows the audience to answer those questions for themselves.
If Stillwater were simply allegory, the messaging would be so on-the-nose that the film would come across as preachy. But McCarthy, as in his Best Picture winner Spotlight, lets the story run equal with the themes, and never allows those themes to override. He does this in simple but incredibly effective ways.
As Damon’s Bill Baker has his family, so do the other characters who enter Baker’s orbit as he makes one last ditch effort to locate a man that may have been responsible for the murder of his daughter Allison’s girlfriend, one night after a party. Baker does not speak a word of French, so he relies on Virginie (Camille Cottin), his hotel next-door neighbor, to help him. Virginie has a habit of helping “lost causes” so she reluctantly decides to help Bill.
She also has a young daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) who quickly bonds with Bill, and Bill finds that he cares a great deal for Maya, which complicates Bill’s need to try to exonerate his own daughter. Unfortunately for everyone in Bill’s orbit, Bill has confused justice with revenge, and that threatens every relationship that Bill finds himself.
This is one of Matt Damon’s best performances. It would be easy to portray Bill Baker as a caricature, a stereotypical brash American outside of his element, but I doubt Damon would be interested in a character like that. In fact, over the years, Damon has quietly turned in impressive work, even in blockbusters like The Martian or the Bourne films. He’s found a way to make each character he plays seem unique, even down to the way those characters walk or enter a room.
Bill Baker is not a man who suffers fools, but he also knows when he is out of his element. But what Bill wants most of all is to be of use, either to his daughter, or to Virginie, or to Maya. The way Damon reacts as Bill when he is told that he is not capable of helping someone else is a brief, wonderful flash into what makes Bill tick.
Damon is always believable in Stillwater, and keeps the movie grounded. Despite Bill’s background or politics (or lack of politics), we can recognize that Bill is a good man, trying to right mistakes that he’s made over the years, but who can stray from the path, going against the better angels of his nature.
Is Bill supposed to represent the United States? In broad strokes, yes, but it is in the details that Stillwater gets complicated. Bill, on the surface, is a simple man, but we know that in real life there is no such thing. Bill struggles with addiction issues, trauma, and emotional detachment, and when those moments threaten to overwhelm him, the movie becomes so much more than a family drama and so much more than allegory.
In Spotlight, Tom McCarthy was fully aware of the incendiary nature of his story, so that film deliberately avoided sentiment and let the facts as the built over the course of the film give full weight to the power of that story. Stillwater similarly avoids sentiment, and builds upon the audience’s perception of the kind of person Bill Baker is, so while we may not agree with every decision Baker makes, we understand why he makes them.
Tom McCarthy’s direction is stellar; he knows just when to apply the emotion for the most impact. Stillwater works as a character piece, as allegory, and as drama. It received a well-publicized standing ovation at Cannes, and while that audience has hyperbolized films that played there before, there is no denying that Stillwater, approached with open eyes and open hearts, has the power to affect those who see it.
It may get lost among the standard superhero and action-oriented fare, but this is a deeply affecting and powerful film.