Matt Damon makes his big screen comeback post theater shutdowns in Stillwater which follows an Oklahoman oil rig worker, Bill, whose daughter must live abroad in Marseille, France due to the legal trouble she got into years ago while in school. Bill visits regularly but on this trip things change as he seeks to help his daughter with the help of some new friends. Does Matt Damon deliver in his post-COVID debut? The Conservative Critic asks: Is it entertaining? Does it have artistic/intellectual value? And Is it liberal propaganda?
The Conservative Critic Meter Check: Stillwater
Overall rating: Okay
Loosely based on the story of real-life American jailed abroad, Amanda Knox, Stillwater is conceptually compelling and starts strong. However, despite its ability to totally defy genre, managing to be thriller and character drama all tonally set in realism, Damon does not deliver on the critical believability of a rural american father struggling from the sins of his past trying to absolve the sins of his daughter’s present. With the lead performance lacking and the film’s needless meandering, Stillwater fails to achieve the greatness and loses the viewer somewhere between compelling concept and contrived caricatures.
Is it entertaining?
Rating: Could have been but was way too long
Stillwater starts strong with an interesting and familiar concept. The viewer isn’t sure what to believe and we’re ready to go on the journey of discovery with Bill as he tries to clear his daughter, Alison’s name. Bill meets an engaging french woman, Virginie, played by Camille Cotton (Call My Agent, Allied) and her daughter Maya played by newcomer Lilou Siauvaud who bring along the film’s much needed heart and provide the juxtaposition between a rural American and a rural French family as their world collide. While that particular juxtaposition was not particularly accurate or complimentary to rural Americans (see more in the liberal propaganda section), it made for funny clashes and contradictions and a lot of sweetness.
But with the sweet country romance, Bill is still tangled up in a thriller as he hunts down the evidence which could clear his daughters name in a country he doesn’t know which uses a language he doesn’t speak. There is a lot of tension and close calls and edge-of-seat moments which bring the film some gravitas and elevate its engagement level.
Unfortunately, it meanders pretty significantly off topic whilst attempting to create a realism in the amount of time which may pass in order to resolve the mystery at hand. The film spends way too much time developing the love story between Bill, Virginie and Maya and extends its run time to two and half hours which is simply far too long to keep the viewer engaged in the subject matter. Director Tom McCarthy also contributed to the writing which can be a dangerous combination for an artist and in this case caused a fatal lack of objectivity in the cutting room. While Maya and Bill’s friendship and Virgnie’s charming “frenchness” is engaging and does help set up Bill’s conflicted character (a troubled man but a good man), it should have been tightened up a lot more and the middle 45 minutes of the film is almost certain to bore and distract most moviegoers.
Does it have artistic/intellectual value?
Rating: Yes but its flaws were ripe
The film is conceptually strong and McCarty and his writing team put a lot of effort into interpreting the Amanda Knox story from the point-of-view of a father. It is one of the most unique styles of films out there combining a french sort of pastoral unlikely love story with an almost Liam Neeson style American-abroad thriller (but if Neeson did not at all have a special set of skills). Props are always given when a filmmaker actually does something new for once.
Additionally, Abigail Bresilin and the Amanda Knox amalgam, Alison, is sensational. Most remember Breslin from her child star days in films like Signs and and Little Miss Sunshine but the young actor has come a long way recently starring in the camp horror parody television series, Scream Queens, with great aplomb. Stillwater gave Breslin the ability to show off her dramatic muscles and she came through. Perfectly articulating a young girl with poor parenting who did not understand the consequences of her actions, Breslin gives the viewer a chance to sympathize with someone who may or may not have stabbed another girl to death. At times petulant, at times grieving, Breslin’s nuanced and understated performance stole the film right out from under her academy award winning co-star.
Damon on the other hand is a large part of the problems with the film. While some of the issues were not his fault, the writing was what it was, some of them were. Bill is supposed to be a rural American man with traditional values but he is also someone who has worked hard his whole life and struggled with alcohol abuse. It is very clear to me that Tom McCarthy has no roots in midwestern or southern or even rural America (In a quick search I discovered McCarthy is from New Jersey). Matt Damon is a super-lib from Boston so no surprise there. Leaning on media promoted stereotypes and tropes, Bill’s character is without nuance. Even his costuming which is Carhartt from head to toe at all times even after months in France is a caricature of a working class American.
What’s worse is that I think the film was actually trying to be empathetic to rural Americans. I think the spirit of the film was to gently tease but more as an inside joke rather than to outright insult and trigger viewer disbelief. But when Bill ends up in France and stays at a Best Western and eats only Subway and bumbles his way through every human interaction he has, its very clear that McCarthy and Damon have hardly met a blue collar American let alone spent enough time with one to understand their motivations. Men who work on oil rigs are perfectly capable of trying french food and engaging in other cultures. The insistence of the film that he was rigidly unable to adapt to French culture in the name of his “Americanness” completely deteriorated the realism of what might have been an exceptional film.
By comparison, Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle in American Sniper was extremely well conceived and delivered by Cooper who spent extensive time with Kyle’s family to understand what motivated him. Damon and McCarthy either couldn’t be bothered to get it right or tried very hard and just fundamentally could not grasp the nuanced personality of an oil rig operator from Oklahoma. Because the film followed this character so closely, the single character’s failure is the failure of the entire film.
Is it liberal propaganda?
Putting aside the absolutely insulting stereotype of Bill as described above, the film also made sure to very randomly insert a load of liberal garbage into the plot line.
For no reason at all, Bill finds himself in a college classroom which is learning about climate change. The professor was part of the moving plot line but of course McCarthy had to make sure Bill would bumblingly just barge into a class mid-lecture so that the viewers had a chance to hear about climate change as if we didn’t already know about it.
Later, Bill is rudely questioned about whether or not he voted for Trump by Virginie and her friend as if had he said yes he’d have been expelled from the country (he is an ex-convict so he did not vote for Trump). Further down the line, Bill is questioned about his gun ownership and mocked by some French actor douche wagon. His prayers before each meal are patronized by every supporting character. Everything “American” about Bill is made to seem childish and stupid.
And the issue of race is brought up several times without necessity though in fairness as an indictment of the French far more than an indictment on Americans (which finally the truth on this situation. America is the least racist country in the world full stop). There is a scene where an informant on Bill’s mission is speaking through Virginie (because he only speaks French) and going on and on about how the Arabs are taking over the country and he would be willing to testify against any Arab to put them in jail instead of Alison and he says something along the lines of “them” all being criminals anyway. This upsets Virgnie and she storms off in self-righteousness and Bill runs after her asking why. She informs him the man is racist and Bill says basically that he doesn’t care if he’s racist because he’s trying to save his daughter and sometimes you have to work with creeps to get what you need. Virginie says “thats very American” (which scuse me m’am but it was a Frenchman who was being the racist) and storms away.
Then later on when Bill and Virginie are trying to go to a certain part of town that is less than upscale, she says they can’t go there after dark because it isn’t safe. Bill says he doesn’t care if he wants to go. She says, they won’t talk to the two of them anyway. And he asks, “Because we’re white?” And she looks at him incredulously like he had asked the stupidest most racist question in the world. But the reality is that in France, the government doesn’t allow refugees to become citizens. They are forced to live in certain housing assigned to them by the government. Almost always slums. And because of this it is quite often that entire neighborhoods in areas of France will be exclusively refugees or immigrants from the Middle East. And because the government keeps everyone separated in that way, there is a very distinct mistrust between white and brown people in these areas. So his question was not at all stupid and in fact contextually was more aware of the systemic racism in France than apparently Virginie the local.And further, it is the policy of open borders and systemic refugee acceptance (but with no resources to integrate them and ensure their well being) which breeds the hatred between born nationals and immigrant nationals in any country including France.
None of this context is present as McCarthy has his racist characters thrown in and out casually like ragdolls with precious Virginie the french hero the only good heart amongst them all.
Stillwater is for sure liberal propaganda but its not full mindmelt and there is plenty of room to ignore it since none of it had anything to do with the actual plot.
There was some good and bad in Stillwater and ultimately I didn’t dislike it. The concept was unique and compelling and the conclusion was not forgone keeping viewers tightly wound into the unfolding mystery of Alison’s circumstances. However, the slow pace, length lack of realistic characterization of the main character and randomly added liberal propaganda was enough to drag the film down into an only mediocre rating.