Tom McCarthy is one of the most reliable humanist American filmmakers, creating layered character studies with larger societal considerations. From the economic woes inherent to his best film Win Win, the social biases underneath the charms of The Station Agent, to his most celebrated and largest scale treatise in Spotlight, McCarthy has carved himself a part of the cinematic landscape for humble stories that put human frailty and perseverance at their center. His latest Stillwater, a vaguely Amanda Knox-like narrative of post-Trump attempted reckoning, finds him taking on what might be his most difficult version of that kind of character-first task.
Matt Damon stars as Bill, a rural midwestern construction worker shuttling back and forth between home and Marseilles, where his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) is jailed for a murder she swears she did not commit. When a new glimmer of evidence that potentially exonerates her goes uninvestigated by her legal team, Bill attempts to find the answers himself, along with a French actress and mother he meets named Virginie (Camille Cottin). Redeeming his checkered history as a parent fuels him as much as his ingrained American sense of virtuous mission, making for a disastrous recipe that will affect more than Allison’s jail time. Damon and Breslin give their admirable best playing notes of despair, but the film ultimately drowns under the weight of its plotting.
Stillwater—with its four credited screenwriters including McCarthy, Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noé Debré—attempts grace notes that fall flat or ring false more often than they succeed. There is promise in the film as the tale of a father trying to redeem himself from past mistakes and overcome his self-destructive nature, with tender moments between Breslin and Damon when he continues to disappoint. But too often the film doesn’t know what to do with that dynamic, or doubts its ability to sustain the film. In turn, it is also short-sighted in how it examines its protagonist. In France, Bill becomes the kind of transplanted person that would receive his disdain back home; he relocates, he takes on construction work, he makes the most of the goodwill and resources he receives. And yet this is something he cannot see, something that makes us question how little he is actually growing, and in a way that reads as unintentional on McCarthy’s part.
Even more frustrating is the film’s onslaught of contrivances working against both McCarthy’s trademark unmanipulated, natural storytelling and the empathic lens. A heavy serving of ludicrousness makes its more mechanical story beats more pronounced, such as Virginie’s immediate willingness to welcome Bill into her life and, well, the film’s entire third act swing. If Bill is supposed to be a mere allegory for America’s nature, its righteous vigilante disposition to take control where it should not, then it puts us through an awful lot of senselessness to make such a pretty basic point. His final declaration (finding the American soil he’s returned to unrecognizable) exists only for its own sake, almost entirely unsupported by the journey he has gone through.
Much like its protagonist, Stillwater’s intentions are cast asunder by its actions. Though McCarthy is clearly looking to find something to say about the bleakness of America’s behavior, but does so in a movie that lurches wildly against that. If the intention is to do so in a film that mimics less well-intended American-dad-overseas thrillers as an act of subversion to a certain audience, the result only makes the imaginable better version of the film where McCarthy stays in his own lane all the more clearer. In confused thematic execution and mismatched conception, Stillwater is deeply depressing.