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‘Stillwater’ runs deep thanks to Damon

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There are a lot of people – directors and writers and actors and designers – who need to succeed in order to make a good movie. But that success is relative – it is possible for the work of one or a few to have an outsized impact on a movie, to be great even if their surroundings don’t quite measure up.

This is a long-winded and overly verbose way of saying that the new movie “Stillwater” – directed by Tom McCarthy, who co-wrote the script alongside Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bregdain and Noe Debre, and starring Matt Damon – is a so-so film that is nevertheless home to some outstanding individual work.

This story of an Oklahoma man who devotes himself to proving the innocence of his young daughter, jailed in France for a crime she claims not to have committed, drew inspiration from the real-life story of Amanda Knox, whose own salacious case of murder and wrongful conviction played out over the course of years back in the ‘00s. It’s a deep and often moving portrait of one man’s efforts to do what’s right, only to continually and thoroughly misstep … not to mention one of Matt Damon’s best performances in years.

(It should be noted that there’s an ongoing discourse surrounding “Stillwater” with regard to Knox and her feelings about having her ordeal used as fodder for the film; the parallels are fairly clear. The degree of control a person has over their own personal story becomes lessened when they move into the public eye, whether by choice or against their will. It might not be right, but it’s how it is, at least right now.)

Damon stars as Bill Baker, an Oklahoma oil field worker currently getting by as a construction worker. His appears to be a more or less typical life as we’d expect to see from a man living this life – he’s got a small house in Stillwater, he eats drive-through for dinner most nights and he falls asleep on the couch before getting up and doing it all again.

But his life is anything but typical.

Bill Baker is also the father of Allison Baker (Abigail Breslin, “Zombieland: Double Tap”), a woman who has spent the past five years in prison after being convicted for the murder of her roommate and lover. It was a salacious situation, ripe for tabloid fodder – American student murders lesbian lover. She proclaimed her innocence, but there was more than enough evidence to put her away.

And so, periodically, this small-town roughneck files to Marseilles and spends two weeks there, visiting Allison over a period of days and otherwise sitting in his room, clinging to every European reflection of America he can find. He doesn’t sightsee. He stays at the Best Western and eats Subway.

When a desperate Allison hears some secondhand information that might corroborate her story, she enlists Bill to help her convince the authorities to reopen her case. Unfortunately, these efforts are once again not enough, leaving Bill to take matters into his own hands.

He does so with the help of a burgeoning friendship with a French stage actress named Virginie (Camille Cottin, TV’s “Call My Agent!”) and her young daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud in her debut); their friendship proves to be an anchor of support for his time in Marseilles.

But when Bill stumbles into knowledge that could genuinely impact Allison’s defense, he’s left to decide just how far he will go – and how much he will sacrifice – to help his daughter. And as someone with a long line of mistakes trailing behind him, will he make the right choice?

On its surface, “Stillwater” is about a man trying to rescue his daughter from a system that has wrongfully imprisoned her. In some ways, it’s like “Taken,” only without the particular set of skills. When an uncapable man must take extraordinary action, well … it’s isn’t always (or even often) going to go well.

It also takes a different angle to the usual fish-out-of-water story. By dropping this standard-issue flyover country guy – stereotypical, really – into the foreignness of Marseilles, we’re allowed to get a new perspective. In this case, a sense of what America looks like to the rest of the world, even as the exemplar of that sense is a fundamentally decent, yet deeply flawed man.

And I’ve already said it, but it bears repeating: Matt Damon is simply exceptional in this role. He plays the part with a wonderful reserve, a small-town stoicism that will likely ring true to many of us. Bill Baker is presented to us warts and all, but he’s never denigrated for his character. His is a fundamental decency that only hard times have allowed to bubble to the surface. He quietly drawls answers in one or two syllables, his language peppered with “Yes, ma’am”s and “No, sir”s. He is a man out of place, slow to engage and acutely uneasy in unfamiliar situations.

There’s a moment – a small one – that perfectly encapsulates the depth of nuance Damon brings to the table. He’s listening to music – his music – and winds up slow dancing with a partner; watching his eyes cast down at the floor, a look of concentration on his face, it’s clear: he’s counting the steps in his head. Such a small moment, but one that encapsulates not only the specific character, but the archetype.

Now, Tom McCarthy has made a pretty good movie here – his talents as a director and writer are unquestioned – but make no mistake: Matt Damon pushes things to a whole new level. Breslin is good and Cottin is great, but this is Damon’s show. It’s the quietest tour de force performance I’ve seen in some time.

“Stillwater” is a perfectly fine film that is elevated to something more courtesy of an absolutely masterful central performance. It’s a story of a man’s crusade to undo a perceived wrong, even though he likely isn’t fully up to the task. “Stillwater” runs deep.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 02 August 2021 08:18

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