Matt Damon returns to Europe
From the streets of Boston to the beaches of Normandy, from the body of an amnesiac assassin to the sands of Mars, Matt Damon has had one of the most wide-ranging acting careers of any movie star of our time. In his latest film, Stillwater, from director Tom McCarthy, who won an Oscar for best picture for 2015’s Spotlight , the preternaturally popular actor has set his sights on the American heartland, only to wind up back on the beaches of Europe.
In an accent-changing, identity-altering role that recalls his work in the Jason Bourne trilogy, Damon plays Bill Baker, a former oil rig worker in Stillwater, Oklahoma, who now works odd jobs with local construction crews. When we first meet him, he’s cleaning up the damage from a tornado, a kind of work that will function as a structuring metaphor for Bill’s attempts to reclaim what he can from the ruins of his life.
Bill, a widower, lives a dull existence in Oklahoma, working at wreckage sites by day and eating drive-thru dinners and falling asleep in front of the TV by night. Everything changes for him, however, when he travels to Marseille, France, to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin). This is anything but a pleasure trip — Allison is in prison, serving a decadelong sentence for the murder of her college roommate. Allison claims she is innocent and has written a letter pinning the blame for the killing on an acquaintance of hers named Akim. She doesn’t trust her father very much, but she entrusts him with this letter, asking him to deliver it to the judicial official who had presided over her case.
Bill delivers the letter, but to no effect: The official looks at it but refuses to reconsider his verdict. Bill then returns to Allison’s cell and, rather than delivering the bad news, tells her the official has agreed to reopen the case. When Allison discovers the deception, she is distraught and tells Bill that she never wants to speak to him again.
Bill, however, believes in his daughter’s innocence and hopes he can salvage their relationship. He moves in with a single mother, Virginie (Camille Cottin), and her endearing young daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), whom he met and befriended while staying at a Best Western, and takes a job with a local construction crew. Determined to do everything in his power to help his daughter, he embarks, with Virginie’s help, upon the seemingly Sisyphean quest of trying to track down a single person, Akim, in a city of over 800,000 people.
These middle stretches of the movie, which take Bill and Virginie from meeting to fruitless meeting, can be quite tedious, enlivened only by the portrayal of Bill’s budding relationship with Virginie and Maya. The way Bill cares for Maya is genuinely heartwarming, and his attempts to learn French —“Hey y’all, deenay ay suhr-vay ” — provide some much-needed comic relief.
Less charming are the crude stereotypes employed by McCarthy and his fellow screenwriters, Marcus Hinchey and Thomas Bidegain. Their Europeans seem to believe that all Americans are a bunch of Trump-voting, gun-toting, Bible-thumping philistines who like the wrong kind of football and the wrong kinds of food. “When I see what you guys eat,” Virginie says to Bill as he says grace before a meal of hamburgers and ketchup, “I understand why you pray before.” Bill, for his part, spouts off about his love of “ real football — Oklahoma State. Not these sissies who whine and cry,” exhibits his incomprehension of French “THEE-ay -duhr,” and consistently puts himself down as an American “dumbass.”
The film overcomes these near-fatal flaws through the strength of Damon’s performance as a good-hearted man trying with all his might to overcome his own demons and through the power of the on-screen bond that develops between Bill and Maya over the course of the film's meandering plot, which takes on evermore Dostoyevskian tones as it winds its way toward its heart-rending denouement.
Stillwater, which might yet generate some Oscar buzz for Damon and its producers despite its late-summer release, falls into the same genre of film as the excellent Manchester by the Sea, which won an Oscar for best actor for Casey Affleck and netted Damon a best picture nominee as a producer: bleak Greek tragedies in bleak, modern settings that offer few if any possibilities for redemption.
“Life is brutal,” Bill says to Allison at the end of the film. And so is this movie: It’s a harsh punch to the gut that makes you wonder if we can ever really overcome ourselves. Stillwater will stay with you for days, even weeks, after seeing it — and for the most part, that’s a good thing.
Daniel Ross Goodman is a postdoctoral fellow and research scholar at the University of Salzburg. He is the author of Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Wonder and Religion in American Cinema and the novel A Single Life .
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