Writer-director Tom McCarthy often works in a quiet, unadorned style. He’s also capable of affection for his characters that can verge on overbearing. In 2015, these qualities were inadvertently placed at odds through a pair of films he happened to release in the same year, one an exacting Best Picture winner and the other a squishy (and uncharacteristically misconceived) disaster. Six years later, Stillwater reunites both sensibilities in what should be his most ill-fitting film yet: a ground-level thriller that takes frequent, extended time-outs for characters to experience likable bonding sessions.
The story has sensationalistic roots; it’s vaguely inspired by the case of Amanda Knox, an American exchange student living in Italy who was convicted of murdering her roommate, spent four years in prison, and was later acquitted. Stillwater joins a similar situation already in progress. Allison (Abigail Breslin) is serving out a sentence in France for the murder of her girlfriend, the implied media circus surrounding her trial has faded, and her father, Bill (Matt Damon), clearly has a routine going. He checks into a Best Western in Marseille for two-week stints, eats primarily at American-based fast-food outlets, and despite having clearly spent a substantial amount of time in France, steadfastly speaks to everyone in English. His frequent use of “ma’am” sounds especially deliberate, announcing himself as both a faux-humble gentleman and someone who refuses to use a single word of French.
Bill and Allison both hail from Stillwater, Oklahoma, and the former’s abiding midwestern dadness belies his past as a screw-up and an addict, unable to fully compensate for the loss of Allison’s mother. (Allison, we learn, was raised largely by her grandmother on her mom’s side, as her dad did time on oil rigs.) So Bill seems determined to make amends, especially when Allison thinks she has a lead on a suspicious character she encountered the night of the murder who could exonerate her, if only someone could track him down. She asks Bill to deliver the message to her lawyer, who rejects the information as too little, too late. This inspires Bill to stay in Marseille a little longer and start snooping around; the investigation proceeds haltingly, but he makes some headway. There’s additional tension in a selfish lie he tells Allison: that the lawyer, not her unreliable dad, is enthusiastically following her lead. It’s as if by hiding the truth and getting the job done himself, he can will his life into a Liam Neeson revenge thriller or an underdog courtroom drama.
Yet Stillwater is not some Taken-style fantasy in which Hollywood liberal Matt Damon dresses in red-state drag to mete out American justice. By chance, Bill gains a translator in Virginie (Camille Cottin), an actress also staying at the hotel while she prepares to move into a new apartment with her young daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). Bill takes a gentle shine to Maya, and that’s where McCarthy’s humanistic instincts go into overdrive. What has been a downbeat amateur-detective thriller becomes a sweet-natured character study about a stereotypically Ugly American adapting to an unexpected new home life.
Is the movie having a conservative-coded character—he demurs on the question of voting for Trump, only by grace of a felony conviction—reform himself to please left-leaning audiences? Or is McCarthy flattering conservative sensibilities by avoiding pesky politics and hiding handsome Matt Damon underneath wraparound sunglasses and a baseball hat? Damon’s performance leaves room for both, which is probably why Bill occasionally feels like a delicate act of politicking rather than a fully believable human. Some early scenes especially clang, with Breslin overdoing her character’s obvious frustration.
But as Stillwater goes on, it becomes easy enough to forget about actorly affectations—the way Damon suppresses his boyish grin and wiseass verbal acuity—and just follow his character through an ever-shifting series of new-normal circumstances. The movie continues to bob and weave, predictable moments knocking against unexpectedly heart-wrenching ones. Rather than undermining the film’s effectiveness, the awkwardness of this marriage between gentle found-family dramedy and peril-fraught melodrama keeps it oddly compelling. The American desire for catharsis and a more European tendency toward observation creates an unspoken internal conflict; at times, the movie feels like an ongoing game of How French Will This Get?
The game stretches well past the two-hour mark. This isn’t McCarthy’s tightest film, nor is it a successor to Spotlight in terms of invigorating, fact-based filmmaking. (To re-emphasize: Amanda Knox really is just a jumping-off point.) It may, however, be his knottiest and most complicated. Early on, the film undermines expectations of a dad heroically fighting the odds for his child—and then, as Bill, Virginie, and Maya come to better understand each other, manages to create a whole new set of expectations to subvert. It’s the first time McCarthy has made such prickly use of his talent for summoning audience sympathy, allowing Bill’s regrets about his parental shortcomings to resonate through his every decision. It’s as if the filmmaker is poking at his past faith in the modest American loneliness of his characters, wondering if maybe they were too good to be true.