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Review: 'Stillwater' finds its way, despite storyline detours

Matt Damon stars in dramatic thriller from "Spotlight" director Tom McCarthy.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

In "Stillwater," Matt Damon wears a collection of plaid shirts tucked into his blue jeans, a mesh ballcap pulled low on his forehead and wraparound shades over his eyes. He has a goatee and punctuates his sentences with "yes, ma'am" and "no, sir." He is an Oklahoman, or at least Hollywood's best approximation of a rugged, red-blooded middle American. 

It's a sturdy performance in a movie that keeps shifting beneath his feet. "Stillwater" is a domestic drama turned adult thriller turned fish-out-of-water redemption story, with another shake-up or two thrown in before the end credits roll. It's about hard choices and harder consequences, and though it doesn't always hold water, it still leaves a lasting effect on the viewer. 

Matt Damon in "Stillwater."

Damon plays Bill Baker, who is cleaning up damage at a tornado site when we first meet him. It could be (and is) a metaphor for his life: He's an ex-con scraping by and taking work where he can get it, living in a small place and taking off his hat to pray over his Sonic tots while watching reruns on TV at the end of the day and getting up to do it all over again. 

Baker's daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin) is in a French jail, five years into a nine year sentence for killing her girlfriend, a crime she swears she didn't commit. Bill dutifully visits his daughter, but she doesn't have much trust or belief in him. She mostly uses him as a go-between as she's trying to find breaks in her case from her jail cell. 

One of her leads sends Bill combing through the streets of Marseille, looking for the "real" perpetrator of the murder, and for awhile, "Stillwater" cooks like a '90s thriller, the kind of adult potboiler they don't make much of anymore. It takes an abrupt turn as Bill seeks help from a local, Virginie (Camille Cottin), a single mother and actress who agrees to play translator for him (Bill doesn't speak French), and eventually lets him move in with her and her daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). 

Bill's newfound domestic situation gives him a fresh start (and sends the movie in a totally different, although welcome, direction), but it doesn't wipe his slate clean. There is still unfinished business at hand, and the choices he's made and his obligation to protect his daughter prevent him from fully starting anew, serving as a reminder about the duty to family and the need to lie in the bed he's made, whether he wants to or not. 

Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy (the Best Picture-winning "Spotlight") wants to tell a story about Americans and their perception in the world — Bill's daughter's storyline alludes to the Amanda Knox case — but he pulls punches along the way. One of Virginie's friends has her misgivings about Bill, and she dances around them until she just comes out and asks him point blank: "Did you vote for Trump?" Bill says no, but it's a non-answer: He didn't vote because he's a felon and he's not allowed to. The natural follow-up — "but I would have" (the likely answer) or "but I wouldn't have" — is never uttered, a way to wiggle out of a situation that McCarthy clearly felt the need to bring to the surface. It's a cop-out. 

And the situation Bill finds himself in while in France is a little too cute, a little too convenient. He finds himself shacked up with a beautiful actress, and this beautiful French actress takes in the honest, hard-working American with a criminal past without any misgivings. Um, what's the French word for unlikely

Still, "Stillwater" packs a punch in its closing moments, landing on a note of quiet resonance as Bill is forced to accept the consequences of his actions and the choices he's made. Damon gives a layered performance, finding redemption in the new life his character starts and begrudging acceptance when he's forced to let it go. The path to getting there isn't always a smooth one, but "Stillwater" manages to run deep.





Rated R: for language

Running time: 140 minutes

In theaters