There's a lot going on in "Stillwater" but its heart is an unusual father/daughter story.
They're not nuts about each other, for starters. When we first see Oklahoma oil rig worker Bill (Matt Damon) with daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), it's clear their relationship is strained. They're in a Marseille prison, where she has spent five years for the killing of a friend. But Allison's closed-off body language and Bill's hesitancy to address important issues tell us they were at odds long before she moved into whatever the French word is for "slammer."
Director Tom McCarthy, who won an Oscar for co-writing the restrained drama "Spotlight," is even more reluctant in "Stillwater" to tell us what to think about its characters. We meet them the way we'd meet a stranger, knowing nothing but what they choose to reveal. So we become interested in them before we learn about their flaws and inconsistencies.
At first, "Stillwater" discloses almost nothing about Bill, and the few details we know about Allison's case — she is fighting to get her conviction overturned — are the ones Bill knows. As he works on his daughter's behalf, there's a sense that they'll never learn to like each other. But Bill may have a second chance with a vibrant Frenchwoman named Virginie (Camille Cottin), an actor who helps Bill with questions about her language and who asks him to move in with her and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud).
Early in "Stillwater," a briefly glimpsed Mexican character, a day worker in Oklahoma, says, "I don't think Americans like to change," and the movie would like us to think about whether that's true. Has Allison, who ditched the U.S. as fast as she could, truly left behind the narrow-mindedness she thought she was escaping? Can Bill, who has made huge mistakes, get past the violence and stupidity of his youth when "Stillwater" gives him a chance to do better with Maya than Allison?
Those are not yes or no questions, by the way. "Stillwater" complicates its characters' tentative steps forward with the sort of inadvisable steps back that make us humans. Bill doesn't even know if his daughter is innocent (neither do we) and, during his frequent prayers, his desperation and fear are evident.
Damon is outstanding as the inexpressive Bill. As the sort of character Clint Eastwood would have nailed a couple of decades ago, Damon's rigid body language and lack of eye contact tell us everything we need to know. Or almost everything. The flashes of surprise in his eyes as he accidentally acquires French phrases or notices Maya has become a friend hint that Bill is as mysterious to himself as he is to us. He'll always be this guy but maybe he'll learn to see the world around him more clearly?
We don't find out the details of the murder until "Stillwater" is nearly over. As true as most of it rings, the drama falters when it tries to be a conventional crowd-pleaser (do we really need a Bill/Virginie romance?). But most of the time, it's thoughtful and credible in the way it gives its characters second chances, then watches to see if they have the courage to take them.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: R (for language)
Running time: 2:20
Where to watch: In theaters Friday
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