On paper, Stillwater seems almost bound to fail. The film focuses on Matt Damon, who plays Bill Baker, an Oklahoman ‘Murica man who travels to France to clear his convicted daughter’s (Allison’s) name and finds himself in the process. It’s part slow burn crime drama, part romance, and part fish out of water comedy; all genres that typically do not form a unified tone. Yet somehow, director Tom McCarthy was able to craft one of the best cinematic house of cards to release in the last several years.
When the audience is first introduced to Bill Baker, he appears to be the stereotypical Midwestern American usually depicted in Hollywood productions; a stubborn ignoramus whose entire identity is centered around his country. The stereotype is even played up for laughs in the early parts of the film as Bill refuses to learn a lick of French and only eats from Subway every night. Yet as we follow Bill on his journey to overturn his daughter’s conviction, we get glimmers of his unsavory past and his attempts to make amends. Bill evolves from a caricature into an individual that is filled with love, guilt, and regrets; someone real.
Bill’s complexity can be attributed not only to McCarthy’s direction and script, but Matt Damon’s uniquely understated performance. Even in moments when Stillwater ventures into slightly comedic territory, Damon’s quiet look of anguish helps to maintain a even, dramatic tone. Additionally, his chemistry with young actress, Lilou Siauvaud (Maya) is off the charts and the true heart of the film.
The reason Stillwater is successful even though it dips its toes into a large swath of genres is due to a unified message of acceptance and making amends. The light-hearted moments of Bill and his unofficial daughter, Maya, trying to communicate across different languages work in this crime drama because it’s emblematic of Bill trying to atone for how he mistreated Allison in her youth. It is because of that message of atonement that every moment in Stillwater, no matter how serious or cheesy, plays perfectly into one another, delivering a work that is touching and heartbreaking all at the same time.
The Silver Lining
While her scenes are largely confined to a single location, Abigail Breslin gives a great supporting performance as Bill’s daughter, Allison Baker. Part of what makes Breslin’s performance so great is that audiences have literally watched her grow up over the past fifteen years. Therefore, when we see her in prison, we, like Bill, immediately sympathize with her plight because how could we not love “Little Miss Sunshine”? Breslin plays up this sympathy in her role, giving a similar look of silent defeat as her co-star Matt Damon. It is not too often that young actors stay so talented when they reach adulthood, but Abigail Breslin is certainly one of the few!
Stillwater is now playing at a theater near you!