The idea of a movie where Matt Damon plays a scruffy roughneck who travels to a foreign country and starts stirring things up in a community of color while seeking justice for his imprisoned daughter easily lends itself to a Liam Neeson action thriller, and the best thing to be said about Tom McCarthy‘s Stillwater is that it is not a Taken knockoff. The problem is that it never fully commits to being much different.
The film, which premiered this week as part of the Cannes Film Festival, is heavily inspired by the real-life Amanda Knox case, where an American college exchange student — here, Allison Baker, played by Abigail Breslin — is imprisoned for the murder of another student. We pick up five years after the initial sentencing, with Damon’s Bill Baker going to France on a routine trip to check on his daughter. Bill is the epitome of a red-blooded American roughneck, and he has both the goatee, the camo hat, the black sunglasses, blue jeans, and even the tattoo of an eagle on top of a skull with a knife coming out of it to prove it. He is also admittedly not the brightest person and is often the bottom of the joke, resulting in a sort of more serious American Mr. Bean.
Damon never fully manages to disappear into the role, but he does play Bill with enough flaws and vulnerability to genuinely make you feel for the guy, for a while. He may be rude and have no regard for France or its people, and Stillwater never misses a chance to remind you how much of a caricature the character is, to the point that he’s often asked by other characters how many guns he owns or if he voted for Trump. That being said, co-writers Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré and Marcus Hinchey always frame Bill’s character through the lens of his paternal desire to help his daughter, to the point where the moments of bigotry and racism in the film come from white French characters rather than Bill, who never expresses anything negative about his daughter’s romantic relationship with an Arab woman (or at least keeps quiet about it).
There is a feeling of defeat that looms over most of Stillwater. When we meet Bill, he’s already deep into a routine of traveling to France to visit Allison, and he’s very well acquainted with the workers at the immigration office, the prison visitation office, and even the Best Western he tends to stay at. Even when the film hints at a Taken-like story of vigilantism, McCarthy quickly shuts it down in order to devote most of the film to a quiet and almost meditative exploration of acceptance and second chances. These family drama-centric scenes give Damon an opportunity to give Bill more depth than just the rage of a parent taking justice into his own hands.
The problem is that Stillwater never commits to a single tone or even subplot. Just as soon as the film abandons the Amanda Knox-like investigation for the family drama section, McCarthy resorts back to becoming a thriller in a plot development that comes out of nowhere and betrays what came before, nearly derailing the entire movie. In trying to avoid becoming a single, simple thing, Stillwater tries to be all of the things, overstuffing its narrative with superficial topics that never lead anywhere. There are brief attempts at tackling themes of class and race divisions in France’s oldest and most diverse city, drawing parallels between it and the U.S, but these are forgotten as quickly as they are introduced, as is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it depiction of bodily harm that is abandoned so fast it borders of insulting due to how serious the topic is to be dismissed like this.
Ultimately, Stillwater is exactly what its premise suggested it would be: a movie about the death of an Arab girl being an afterthought for the story of white Americans wreaking havoc in a foreign country.
Guess who’s back?
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