Let’s get this out of the way now: Stillwater is not related to the Almost Famous band. Stillwater’s Bill Baker, on the other hand, would probably dig the band’s boomer beats. Playing Baker in peak dad bod mode, Matt Damon creates an anti-hero who is far more complicated than everyday dad rock. Baker hails from the Oklahoma city of Stillwater, yet he finds himself in picturesque Marseilles. It’s not a happy trip to France—is it ever, for a freedom-fry-munching American? The only tourist worse than Bill is his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), whom he visits in France. She’s in a Marseilles jail for killing a girl. However, Allison maintains her innocence and Bill, redemption-seeking father that he is, believes her.
Stillwater is the Amanda Knox story with a twist. Like the subject of that grisly tale, which inspired a hit Netflix doc, Allison serves time for killing a student. The story, much to her devote Catholic father’s chagrin, caused headlines. The press painted Allison like a knife-wielding lesbian lunatic after her younger girlfriend was sliced and diced following a fight. When Bill visits Allison this time, she hands him a letter that begs her lawyer (Anne Le Ny) to pursue a lead.
The lawyer, whether due to her doubt of Allison’s innocence, skepticism of the new lead, or her personal apathy towards Americans, declines. Stillwater therefore sees Damon reborn as a new Jason Bourne. Fatter, shaggier, and rougher, but also sweeter. Bill Baker is the epitome of a devoted father who will sacrifice anything for his daughter.
The Marseilles Way
Bill follows the clues, but struggles to break ground. For one, Damon’s French has echoes of Margot Martindale in Paris, je t’aime, but c’est clunkier. (Although, like Martindale, he smartly butchers the language for comedic effect.) Bill’s also an outsider who doesn’t understand the Marseillaise way. He’s a man of “Build the Wall!” America. He distrusts immigrants and follows Trump’s cue to assume they’re all violent rapists. Marseille, however, faces its own changing demographics. Locals complain about the shifting colour of the population and they wax nostalgic for their idyllic seaside town. However, any true “Marseillaise” follows a code. The town might be rough, but there’s honour among thieves. Nobody talks and nobody snitches, which makes Bill’s quest a challenge. It also amplifies his very un-Christian racist streaks.
Cue a single and attractive Frenchwoman. Virginie (Camille Cottin) comes to Bill’s aid when she offers her translation services as a thank-you for his kindness towards her daughter. (They’re hotel room neighbours in Marseilles.) Virginie tries to teach Bill the Marseilles way. This leads to gruff altercations, violent encounters, and a habit for working outside the law. As Italian-American mobsters say, “It is what it is.”
Bill and Virginie develop an odd relationship that’s partly transactional and partly romantic. He stays in France to help Allison’s cause, renting space in Virginie’s apartment and taking care of her daughter, Maya. He’s no longer the deadbeat, alcoholic disappointment that inspired Allison to flee to France.
Pity the Trump Supporter
Bill is, however, still the conservative and xenophobic dick that Allison left back home. Damon carries Bill’s baggage relatively well. (The dumpy Wal-Mart jeans and flannel, less so.) This man is an old stock “man’s man.” He doesn’t express emotions and envisions himself the strong and silent type. This restraint can be limiting for an actor, but it can also be an asset. Bill isn’t an especially likable character, yet Damon’s subdued performance presents Bill as a man who is a prisoner of his own prejudice. After all, his hard-drinking, right-wing god-fearing ways drove Allison away.
Damon’s stoicism actually helps Stillwater’s somewhat ambiguous politics. Aside from one totally toxic outburst in which Bill agrees with a Marseilles café owner that any Arab boy off the street could be a scapegoat to free Allison, he mostly keeps his politics to himself. When one of Virginie’s friends asks Bill if he voted for Trump, he simply replies that he didn’t…because felons can’t vote. The implication is, of course, that Bill would have voted for Trump in the overwhelmingly red state of Oklahoma. (Stillwater’s Payne County went 60% for Trump.)
That Bill often holds his opinions in check leaves one somewhat ambivalent to him as a character. On one hand, writer/director Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) asks audiences to check their preconceptions at the door. Bill doesn’t sport a MAGA hat, but he proudly owns two guns, which becomes a point of ridicule for one of Virginie’s friends. Stillwater invites audiences to sympathize with someone from Trump County, USA without condoning his politics. Bill still sees Marseilles through a lens that fears the other, and he can’t quite confront Allison’s sexuality while exonerating her. McCarthy and Damon ensure that Bill, as a character, is problematic. It’s critical of Bill’s views even if the man’s predisposition towards American exceptionalism prevents him from seeing reality.
Stillwater takes a very dark turn, however, as Bill’s gunslinger ways mix with the lawlessness of Marseilles. The story veers from the Amanda Knox narrative and takes an unexpected vigilante twist. Audiences uneasy with Bill’s politics will find themselves doubly conflicted by his quest to clear Allison’s name. Stillwater’s final act will likely prove divisive for both its discomfort and its plausibility. However, McCarthy builds upon the Marseilles code of honour among thieves as Bill and company do what they gotta do to help Allison.
By keeping the audience at an uncomfortable distance from Bill, moreover, Stillwater grants the story’s catharsis to Allison. Breslin flies under the radar for most of the film, but rest assured: anyone who doesn’t know how to feel about Bill will face a whole other set of mixed emotions. It’s still a game of “Foxy Knoxy,” so to speak.
Stillwater opens in theatres July 29.