At the beginning of "Stillwater," Bill Baker (Matt Damon), an Oklahoma construction worker, stands amid the remnants of a house that's recently been destroyed by a tornado. He's dependably good at his job, even if it's just a temporary gig, something to tide him over while he looks for a more permanent position on an oil rig. Money and work have been scarce for a while, and the tornado, without affecting him directly, puts a cruel accent on the litany of disasters — alcoholism, unemployment, family estrangement, a criminal record — that his life has become. He's gotten used to combing through the wreckage; when he leaves town a few beats later, it's clear he's not leaving behind much.
Although it draws its title from this Middle American city, most of Tom McCarthy's methodical and surprising new drama takes place half a world away in the French port city of Marseille, where Bill finds himself on a curious and lonely assignment. He's visiting his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), who's spent five years in prison for the murder of her girlfriend, Lena, whom she met while studying abroad in Marseille. The story was loosely inspired by events surrounding the 2007 killing of the British student Meredith Kercher, though McCarthy and his co-writers are not especially interested in a straightforward retelling of that tragedy.
Allison, the movie's Amanda Knox figure, has always maintained her innocence. With four years left to serve, she asks her father to contact her attorney (Anne Le Ny) with new evidence that might persuade the authorities to reopen her case. A teenager, Akim, has allegedly implicated himself in a scrap of barroom hearsay, though it's too flimsy a lead to persuade the attorney. But Bill, spying an opportunity to make up for his past negligence as a dad, stubbornly undertakes his own search for the elusive, possibly nonexistent Akim, all while navigating a city and a language that couldn't feel more foreign.
To him, anyway. Centering its protagonist's stern, bearded frown in nearly every scene, "Stillwater" registers Bill's cultural confusion without necessarily indulging it. Unveiled last week at the Cannes Film Festival, on the other side of France's Mediterranean coast, the movie effectively merges the patient investigative rigor of McCarthy's Oscar-winning newsroom drama "Spotlight" and the cross-cultural humanism of his earlier film "The Visitor." Put another way, it's a somber crime thriller wrapped around a sly fish-out-of-water comedy, in which Bill is invariably the butt of the joke. "I'm a dumbass," Bill says more than once, and the movie, however sympathetic to his plight, doesn't really contradict him. He gets an "A" for effort, but the challenges of a murder investigation — tracing Instagram feeds, chasing down frightened witnesses — would prove daunting even to someone who knows the Marseille waterfront.
Fortunately, Bill meets a friendly bilingual guide in Virginie (a terrific Camille Cottin), a theater actress who regards this Sooner State refugee with kindness, amusement and an almost sociological fascination: Does he own a gun? Did he vote for Trump? (The answers are worth hearing for yourself.) Virginie also has a winsome young daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), who naturally hits it off with Bill immediately, raising the specter of a redemptive second shot at fatherhood. The mutually beneficial arrangement that follows — Virginie helps Bill with his search, Bill becomes her handyman and Maya's babysitter — is one of those sentimental developments you grudgingly and then gladly accept, because the actors have such warm, involving chemistry and also because there's something irresistible about the kindness of strangers.
The best passages of "Stillwater" allow that kindness to flourish and take center frame, temporary liberating the movie from its dogged procedural template. McCarthy, a straightforward craftsman, has a gift for teasing out the humanity in every unshowy frame, and, working with cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi and editor Tom McArdle, he nicely conveys the passage of time and the blooming of fresh emotional possibilities. Those possibilities become still more heartrending when Allison is allowed out on parole for a day, in scenes that Breslin plays with a wrenching mix of toughness, resignation and despair. Through her eyes, we see the Marseille that she fell in love with and briefly wonder if her crucible of suffering might also mark a potential new beginning.
The filmmakers, of course, have chosen France's oldest and most diverse city for a reason, given its longstanding reputation as a gritty hotbed of crime and poverty — a reputation that's been partly fueled by the movies themselves, among them classic thrillers like "The French Connection" and "Army of Shadows" (and the recent "Transit," a classic in the making). McCarthy has cited Marseille noir novels as an inspiration for his screenplay, which he wrote with Marcus Hinchey and the French writers Thomas Bidegain and Noe Debre, who were doubtless crucial in fleshing out a persuasively inhabited street-level portrait of contemporary France. Notably, Bidegain and Debre have also fashioned "Stillwater" into a curious echo of their 2015 neo-Western, "Les Cowboys," another father-daughter rescue story set at a Franco-American cultural crossroads.
In "Les Cowboys," a white man is driven mad by the realization that his daughter has run off with her Muslim boyfriend. Although it's cut from different genre cloth, "Stillwater" doesn't have to dig too deep to uncover similarly ugly sentiments in Marseille as Bill's search for an Arab suspect brings him face to face with all manner of casual anti-immigrant bigotry. Bill, it's worth noting, comes off rather better by comparison: He seems appreciably less racist than some of the locals, and if this devout Christian has any negative thoughts about his daughter's passionate romance with an Arab woman, he keeps them to himself. His mission here isn't motivated by religion, politics or ideology, but by the simple desire to bring his daughter home. Nothing could be more primal or understandable.
Our sympathetic identification with Bill, in other words, is the reason this movie exists. It's also the reason a viewer might find "Stillwater" troubling as well as absorbing. This is the story, after all, of a white male American charging into a French Arab community (represented by fine actors including Moussa Maaskri, Nassiriat Mohamed and Idir Azougli) and running roughshod over cultural sensitivities in his aggressive pursuit of what he considers justice. It's also ostensibly the story of a dead Arab woman who nonetheless remains at the narrative margins, and who exists primarily as a catalyst for her lover's incarceration and potential exoneration.
The standard defense against this criticism is that the filmmakers are smart and self-aware enough to have anticipated it. In this case they've also sought to defuse it by treating Bill's narrative centrality as a point of subversion, a means of rejecting the trumped-up myth of American exceptionalism that he represents. Bill's outsider status, a source of pathos and comedy in the first two acts, threatens to become a moral liability in the third. McCarthy pushes the thriller narrative in directions more extreme and harrowing than plausible, bringing Bill and Allison's story to an unexpected point of reckoning. It's possible to be genuinely moved by that reckoning — and to admire the obvious intelligence and care that have been brought to bear on "Stillwater" — without fully buying the trail of contrivances and compromises it leaves in its wake.
MPAA rating: R (for language)
Running time: 2:20
Where to watch: Opens July 30 in theaters
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