Americans are used to watching Americans save the day in movies. It’s the kind of hero Bill Baker wants to be for his daughter Allison – a young woman convicted of murdering her boyfriend while studying abroad – in “Spotlight” director Tom McCarthy’s non-conventional crime thriller ” Stillwater. ” The set-up sounds familiar to anyone who remembers the Amanda Knox case: Five clicks into a nine-year sentence, Allison has always maintained her innocence. After new evidence emerges, she writes a letter to her lawyer asking for help. But she is careful not to involve her father directly. “I can not trust him with this. He is not capable, ”she writes.
For a certain kind of people, words like that are a direct challenge. And when that man is played by Matt Damon in sleeveless T-shirts and a bald eagle tattoo, we still expect to save the day. Maybe he does, but that̵
McCarthy tells “Stillwater” from Bill Baker’s point of view, but he encourages the audience to see the character from the perspective of others as well and to observe what this unusually rough neck looks like to the people he meets abroad – and especially to a single mother at name Virginie (Camille Cottin), with whom the rude widower befriends early. Back home in Stillwater, Okla., Bill has been doing odd jobs since losing his oil-rich concert. He would not be in Marseille if not for his daughter (Abigail Breslin). He is not a tourist and he is not interested in learning the language. But he is also not the stereotypical “ugly American”. Bill prays he’s polite and he believes in doing the right thing. And if Allison says she’s innocent, then in the eyes of this godly, gun-possessed guy, it’s right to help her prove it.
Now someone could have written that movie. But McCarthy was smart: he hired the top screenwriter working in France today, Thomas Bidegain (“A Prophet”), and his writing partner Noé Debré to collaborate and run with a completely different film. Well, maybe not quite different, but different enough to disappoint those who expect to see Matt Damon whip a gun out and kick some doors down to seek justice. (Let Mark Wahlberg make that movie.)
Bidegain’s signature – the thing that sets him apart from the vast majority of screenwriters – is that he does not write “the scene where” a particular plot point is to take place. Watching most Hollywood thrillers, that’s all you get, as if the creators bought a bunch of index cards, shared the movie in story-promoting moments (the scene where A, the scene where B) and taped them to the wall and then built the script from it. Bidegain knows we’ve all seen enough movies to make such a literal setting boring, and then he and Debré come to each scene sideways: They let certain things happen off-screen and focus instead on seemingly worldly snapshots that reveal far more about character.
“Stillwater” features a mix of both approaches – a scene where a friend of Virginie’s asking Bill, whom he voted on, is a good example – and while it’s hard to say who wrote what (Marcus Hinchey, of the amazing Netflix drama “Come Sunday,” is also credited), the film is more interesting for being less obvious. Of course, Bill wants to clear his daughter’s name, and “Stillwater” shows him walking around. But the cultural barriers make it impossible to get far on their own – a trip to northern Marseille’s infamous Kallisté district leaves him hospitalized – and then he recruits Valerie and wins her over by being kind to his 8-year-old daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud).
Of course, Bill can not change French law, and it is not clear that even if he could find the guy that Allison claims to be responsible for – an Arab who was there at the bar that night – he would be able to overthrow her belief. But as he and Virginie spend time together, Bill Maya shows the kind of dangerous concern that he was too drunk and ruthless to give to Allison when she was a child. The blame for this irresponsibility weighs heavily on Bill, adding another dimension to Damon’s remarkable performance. There is something caveman-like about the way the actor carries his body, in hugs on the face and slow pull of his southern accent. The character has a temperament problem, and based on his appearance, he could tear someone in two – even though it may not be advisable in a foreign country.
After hitting a dead end in the investigation, Bill decides to stay in Marseille. He moves in with Virginie and Maya, collects a few French words and plays all-rounder around the house. Dubbing this Bill’s redemption can simplify things, even if something clearly changes in him. And this change is the soul of “Stillwater.” Resisting any temptation to be sweet, yet supported by child actor Siauvaud’s immensely sympathetic presence, the film gives Bill – as well as the audience – a taste of a different life.
Will Americans who have not been abroad connect to this part of the film? Or will they be bored with every second that Bill does not proactively try to prove Allison’s innocence? In 140 minutes, “Stillwater” spends much more time on Bill’s new home situation with Virginie and Maya than viewers probably expect. But then these scenes take time, as they have the task of conveying more than just the latest developments in the case. (On the other hand, straightforward genre films have the luxury of being tight.) Ironically, the clumsy scene appears here when the police show up.
McCarthy has more in mind by using Damon’s character to “make a hole” (as a rough neck does) in various assumptions that Americans have about themselves. Bill acts as a mirror of what aliens see when a certain kind of cowboy barrels through the salon doors of another country, the hands of his holster, and it is not necessarily flattering. On the surface, it may not satisfy everyone, but to coin a sentence, “Stillwater” runs deep.