Is Stillwater an American movie trapped inside a French film, or a French film stuck inside an American movie?
Tom McCarthy’s first adult-oriented feature since Spotlight is quite a ride. At times it rushes forward at the speed of a tense international thriller. In other moments, it moves at the lackadaisical pace of a French dramedy. It’s a Taken film that’s actually taken seriously, posing the question: what would happen if the average American dad really did travel to Europe to try and rescue his daughter? And what if he was like most Americans, unable to speak a foreign language? Imagine Taken if 45 minutes in the middle were excised and replaced with 45 minutes of Jacques Audiard’s Rust And Bone, and that’s a rough approximation of what you’re in for here.
Should that work? No. Does it work? Well, that depends on what exactly you think McCarthy is up to here, and how deeply you’re willing to look into Stillwater, a film with a prestigious, awards-ready pedigree that is unquestionably messy and wildly uneven. It would be easy to dismiss Stillwater for not knowing exactly what kind of film it’s trying to be — or worse, as a close cousin of Joe Bell, which also stars a bankable action star as a prickly but ultimately likable roughneck who makes good when tragedy befalls his gay kid. Stillwater has most of the trappings — and sometimes the feel — of sticky-sweet studio pap, the kind of Hollywood hokum that purports to be about something but ultimately just reinforces the mythology surrounding a straight white man. Stillwater is never too far from becoming that kind of movie.
But what it really is is a reckoning, exploring America’s uncertain future in relation to our neighbors abroad, and our struggle at home to redefine who, exactly, we are (and what we’re capable of) in these rickety times. Stillwater plays out on a far larger canvas than it would at first appear, raising complex questions about America’s place on the international stage right now. The film was shot before the 2020 election, and of course well before COVID, but in some ways it feels like the first film to really dig into the post-Trump era and ask: What now? That’s no small feat for a story initially inspired by the sensational scandal surrounding Amanda Knox, ripped from the pre-Obama headlines of 2007. McCarthy provides no easy answers, and indeed, his exploration of these themes in the movie is often as muddled and frenzied as it has been in the real world. But so much of Stillwater speaks to more than just the handful of characters this film is focused on, but the collective guilt and shame and uncertainty Americans face coming out of the Trump presidency; whether we can and should be forgiven for our sins, or if we’re just damned.
Matt Damon stars as Bill Baker, who looks like the guy that left you a snarky reply about how many people the flu kills every year sometime last spring. He wears sunglasses you can only find in a 7-11 for $8.99. He also wears a ball cap, which he only removes while he prays before digging into a double-meat Subway footlong. He dropped out of high school. Never in a million years would it have occurred to him to ever visit a fancy-pants place like France — except that his daughter went to college there, and was convicted of murdering her girlfriend. Now Allison Baker is five years into her prison sentence, hoping her dad can help her uncover some new evidence that will prove she’s innocent of the crime. The French judicial system doesn’t believe that the boy she swears killed Lina exists, but Bill believes his daughter. So he goes on a one-man quest to track down the real killer, aided by Virginie (Camille Cottin), the pretty French woman who agrees to serve as his translator in exchange for some handiwork around her new apartment.
Yes, this sure sounds pulpy, the jumping off point for an adrenaline rush movie that would star Liam Neeson or Jason Statham or, um, Matt Damon. There are a few implausible twists and turns over the course of this story, but most of it remains grounded and understated. Stillwater never aims to have the punch or panache the straight-up action-thriller version of this story would aspire to. McCarthy subverts nearly all of our expectations for a tale like this — for example, when the guy who played super spy Jason Bourne gets his ass handed to him by a crew of impudent young hooligans. (Liam Neeson would never!) There’s something basely satisfying about seeing the know-it-all American actually get beaten to a pulp in one of these movies, without immediately reestablishing his dominance. Because that’s the reality of a situation like this. A guy like Bill Baker will talk a big game, but when he’s off his home turf, he’s totally out of his depth.
In McCarthy’s version of a Taken-style story, it’s the free-wheeling French actress who comes to Bill’s rescue, not only helping him in pursuit of the real killer but in saving his soul, too. Bill Baker takes a liking to life in Marseilles, forming a special bond with Virginie and her adorable daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), which gives him a second chance at being a good father and a good partner after he screwed up his first attempt at being a family man. Allison is happy for him, but she’s also sore at getting such a raw deal herself — her own childhood was a nightmare, which saw her flee the States for an education abroad, a journey that, through a freakish twist of fate, ultimately landed her behind bars in a foreign country.
There are lots of layers to the human-scale drama in Stillwater — between father and daughter, between a conservative American man and the liberal French woman who may or may not become his love interest. And even when the film strays far, far away from the tense, plot-driven mystery it seemed like it was intent on telling at the outset, the dramatic beats are so graceful and enjoyable that you almost don’t mind it becoming a very different, very French movie instead. If a Jason Bourne flick suddenly and shamelessly becomes Before Sunrise for an hour, why complain?
Stillwater is ultimately much more than a serious Taken, though, or a curiously action-packed new installment in Linklater’s Before trilogy. That’s why its messiness works. “What’s wrong with us?” Allison asks her father at a crucial moment, and she’s not just speaking about the two of them. Bill’s knee-jerk, Neeson-lite impulses ultimately don’t sit right in a French romance, and Allison’s bid at the quixotic French lesbian life has ended in bloody murder. France ejects these two foreigners the way the body pushes a splinter out. This country, Stillwater seems to say, wants nothing to do with America’s trademark violence. Virginie’s Frenchman beau briefly kids Bill about his cliche gun ownership when Bill admits he has two firearms. It’s a comical extravagance in his eyes. Another of Virginie’s friends can’t help but ask Bill the Big Question — did he vote for Trump? A man like Bill Baker is a kooky curiosity on the world stage, not the tough-as-nails swinging dick he can be purport to be back in Oklahoma. Gradually, Bill starts to see himself through international eyes — something real Trump voters would never deign to do, so dismissive are they of anyone but their own kind. It’s a rude awakening for a man who has been sleepwalking through what’s left of the American dream most of his life.
America itself may not be a joke to the French — at least, not in this movie — but this American sure is. (He’s a joke to many of us here at home, too.) Bill becomes a kinder, gentler person as he expands his horizons and lives a more European life. After all, it’s easy to say “America first” when you’ve never left the country, but another thing entirely once you actually see what else is out there — a journey most real-life MAGA types will never undertake. Under the weird circumstances of having his daughter incarcerated in a foreign land, Bill is forced to discover that it’s America that loses when the rest of the world is cut off or shut out. There’s a whole big, beautiful world out there — why is conservative America so determined to sit at home, admiring itself in the mirror?
Stillwater presents Bill Baker as a fully fleshed out character, not a mere archetype. He becomes someone we can root for without compromising the deeply held values at his core (love of God, country music, trucks, red meat, and firearms, not necessarily in that order). A film like this easily might have offered nothing more than a hollow redemption arc for a problematic white male. But McCarthy isn’t interested celebrating guys like Bill any more than he’s interested in condemning them. What he does is awaken Bill to a life beyond middle America, then force him to sit and think about whether or not he’s still content with the narrow, self-indulgent worldview his conservative politics necessitate.
WBut ultimately, Stillwater shows us, you can take the redneck out of red state, but you can’t take the red state out of the redneck. Bill succumbs to his big, dumb action movie instincts, potentially endangering his newfound French family and alienating from his jailed daughter once again. And American isolationism triumphs once again.
When young Maya asks Bill about his work, he replies that his job is “making holes,” referring to the construction and oil rigging work he’s done. Essentially, that means doing damage is his life’s work. He hollowed his marriage out with a drinking problem, and was enough of a deadbeat dad that his daughter traveled halfway across the world in search of something to fill the emptiness inside. There’s something inherently American about Bill’s line of work — digging, destroying, extracting, and providing what, exactly, of value in return? Virginie is an artist, a creator, an empathizer. She feels compassion for Bill, and he comes to care for her and Maya, too. But a man like Bill Baker — the typical American male — isn’t built to last in a relationship with a modern French woman. In the same way, perhaps, America is too self-interested and hostile and turbulent for the relationships it seeks with foreign nations now. It’s lonely at the top.
The French aren’t perfect. No nation is. But Stillwater contrasts its American characters with its European ones, the Oklahoma bookends with the bulk of the movie’s Marseilles setting, and a preposterous Hollywood thriller with a light-hearted French dramedy, posing Allison’s brutal but salient question right back at its audience: “What’s wrong with us?” Why are we so impulsive? Why are we so selfish? Why are we so violent? Why are we so self-destructive? Why are we so… alone? Bill would have gone his whole life without thinking on these issues much, but his daughter — from a more thoughtful, more educated, more “woke” generation — certainly did, even before she was the prime suspect in a splashy murder case. Allison knows there’s something inherently broken in her father, the all-American man — and that damage has been passed along to her, too. And even Bill knows he’s fucked up his daughter’s life — that’s why he fights so hard to atone for his past by freeing his daughter from the prison he’s put her in. But even if he succeeds in that very literal, very Taken-style quest, isn’t bringing her back to Oklahoma a “free” woman just putting her in another kind of cage?
In Stillwater‘s final scene, one character feels like they’ve come home again, while another looks around and realizes they don’t recognize America anymore. It’s a quietly profound statement on how divergent our views on this country are right now — likely even divided even within ourselves. From the time of Trump’s election to present day, our country did two very significant things — it changed unfathomably, and it stayed the same. We’re so divided that we may never all recognize the country we thought we knew at the same time ever again. Perhaps we’ll just keep taking turns being aghast and appalled at what’s become of us, every four or eight years until the end of time. And the rest of the world? To them, we’re alluring but pitiable, mighty but also the butt of the joke. We may end up the way so many of us wanted to, when they voted for a vain, venal, self-destructing xenophobe — we’ll be cut off from all connection with the outside world. On our own.
Stillwater only nudges up against these colossal geopolitical questions. Many in the audience may watch it and not think of such matters at all. (They’re the ones most likely to be disappointed that Stillwater isn’t more like Taken.) For those who care to wrestle with its inconsistencies, however, and wonder if they might be more than the result of messy screenwriting, what seems like a small movie suddenly blossoms into a spectacularly large one — a tongue-in-cheek subversion of the macho ass-kicker action hero trope, a playful commentary on the differences between European arthouse cinema and the Hollywood blockbuster, a painful examination of how deeply ingrained violence is in American culture, and a faltering dirge playing us out of the Trump era.
McCarthy couldn’t have known where this country would be upon this movie’s release — especially considering that it’s being released nearly a year late, thanks to COVID — but life has been particularly brutal over the past year or so, with many of America’s signature follies taking on monstrous proportions. Stillwater‘s version of a happy ending is gloriously appropriate for these hesitant times (perhaps even borrowing a page from The Graduate, in its own way). Many films end on a happy homecoming, but how many of them extend the beat to show our heroes looking at these familiar surroundings and realizing, “Oh, shit, wait a minute — we live here?”
Many of us have seen our homeland in a new light in recent years. Many of us would have rather been in Marseilles.
But I don’t think Marseilles wants us anymore.