Stillwater Matt Damon Tom McCarthy

Matt Damon is a mad dad out for revenge in the politically muddy Stillwater

“Trump, of course, comes up. Yet the film dodges its own bullets, too scared to contend with a liberal audience’s reaction to a right-wing protagonist.”

Over the past decade, a type of star vehicle for middle-aged Hollywood actors has emerged: the “mad daddy revenge” subgenre. Keanu Reeves, Liam Neeson, Bob Odenkirk and now, with Stillwater, Matt Damon have each given their careers a jolt forward with a suckerpunch and kick (without throwing out their backs).

In Stillwater, however, Matt Damon isn’t an aging hitman pulled out of retirement. He doesn’t disassemble a handgun in seconds or travel across the world undetected, as anyone who has seen The Bourne trilogy might expect. Instead, Matt Damon plays Bill Baker, an oil rig worker and tough guy from Stillwater, Oklahoma. We first meet him at a construction site where he is clearing old homes with a sledgehammer to make way for new ones. We find out that he has been travelling back and forth to Marseilles for the past few years to visit his imprisoned daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), a young woman accused of murdering her girlfriend. No doubt inspired by Amanda Knox, Allison was the centre of a media storm during the trial, but is at risk of being forgotten by her lawyer who is now unwilling to reopen the case despite new evidence. 

Bill decides to take matters into his own hands and search for the culprit himself, despite speaking no French and looking like he’s never journeyed beyond the prison’s visitation room and the Best Western. Meanwhile, he develops a friendship with single mother Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), which is tested by Bill’s reckless defiance of the law and his unabashed devotion to the red, white and blue.

Politics hovers over Stillwater in a hazy cloud. The film is stretched thin by its simultaneous desires to situate itself in the current political climate and to divest its characters of any shred of politics. The screenwriters are clearly aware of the racial tensions in France and in Marseille especially, but they fail to shed light on those relations. For instance, when the suspected murder is refered to as “a light-skinned Arab man” it sounds like the casting call for the role, not a reflection on racial reckoning and intersecting identities. 

Trump, of course, comes up. Yet the film dodges its own bullets, too scared to contend with a liberal audience’s reaction to a right-wing protagonist. It wants us to empathize with its roughneck hero without giving us full access to his ideas, his beliefs and his inner life. Character details surface in bite-sized chunks that don’t feel lived in. He prays over a Subway footlong in his hotel, but the content of his prayers and the role of faith are kept at a distance. His tattoo of an eagle holding a skull with a knife going through it suggests an aggressive patriotism, but how he feels about his country beyond surface statements is a mystery. Damon does a convincing enough job, yet he, too, limits the character’s depth with a mumbled drawl. 

Directed by Tom McCarthy, Stillwater weaves through genre conventions with relative ease, yet what it gains in genre scope it sacrifices in specificity. It mixes tropes from revenge film, family drama, legal drama, and the American Abroad genre, coalescing into a broad tapestry of parental sacrifice. Yet, with its nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime, one wonders how much more affecting a pared down version of the script could’ve been. The sprawling narrative, with its twists and turns, loses the audience in the space between what the film is and what it could be.

At one point in the film, Bill says to Maya that he dropped out of high school and started working at the oil rig, drilling holes like his Dad had done before him. “That’s what a roughneck does. We make holes.” Sadly, Stillwater doesn’t dig deep enough. ■

Stillwater opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, July 30. Watch the trailer here:

Stillwater, directed by Tom McCarthy, starring Matt Damon

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