Bill Baker (Matt Damon) is no Philip Marlowe. He thinks he is, and with a bit of training, he might be. But he’s not there yet. You see, his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), is incarcerated in a French prison for murdering her roommate. But Allison maintains her innocence. There was another, a third man, if you will, who killed her roommate. If only someone could find him, maybe the judge will reopen the case. Maybe Bill could be that man.
And he’ll try, but a few things stand in his way. For starters, Allison is locked up in Marseille, and Bill doesn’t speak a lick of French. He’s a roughneck from Stillwater, Oklahoma, who spends most of his time working on oil rigs. When he’s not working, he’s drinking—or was. He’s got that under control now and wants to mend the damage Allison still holds against him. So with his plaid button-ups on and camo cap pulled down low, Bill embarks on the hunt to find the third man.
Directed by Tom McCarthy (he of Spotlight fame), Stillwater is an amateur detective story with shades of the Amanda Knox trial. Damon plays Bill as a man of few words and fewer emotions. He enters the movie looking like a walking stereotype, but Damon and McCarthy conspire to subvert any expectations the audiences might bring to Bill: He proves capable of tracking down a lead; when he appears to be suspicious of foreign customs and etiquette, Bill learns and incorporates them; and when a friend asks him if he voted for Trump, he flatly says no. Then follows with: “They don’t let you vote if you have a felony.”
The woman who asks that question, Virginie (Camille Cottin), is letting Bill stay with her in the guest room in exchange for help around the house and with Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), Virginie’s young daughter. Bill and Maya go together like glue and sparkles, and the middle section of Stillwater is a diversion from the detective narrative to a domestic one. Bill was never there for Allison, and you get a sense he’s trying to make up for lost time with Maya. McCarthy makes the most of this introjection by bringing it in when it feels natural and departing from it the second it starts to outstay its welcome.
The inclusion of this domestic middle section might be what Stillwater’s about. Without giving more away than necessary, these moments act as reminders of what is lost when a choice is made. And not just for Bill or Allison, but ancillary characters as well.
Damon shines in these moments, as does Siauvaud and Cottin, and McCarthy gets out of the way. As in his previous films, McCarthy is more interested in showing behavior than playing the audience like a piano. It’s a way of humanizing everyone. And when a crucial piece of information is revealed in the third act, it doesn’t feel like a twist or a surprise, just something ordinary that got out of hand. Stillwater is not noir by a long shot, but one of the genre’s hallmarks seems applicable here: Noir is horror for everyday people.
Directed by Tom McCarthy
Written by Tom McCarthy, Thomas Bidegain, Marcus Hinchey, Noé Debré
Produced by Liza Chasin, Steve Golin, Jonathan King, Tom McCarthy
Starring: Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, Camille Cottin, Lilou Siauvaud
Focus Features, Rated R, Running time 140 minutes, Opens in theaters July 30, 2021.