Family drama explores depths and limitations of good intent

Bill Baker, as portrayed by Matt Damon, is a familiar middle-American archetype: plainspoken, hard-working, devoted to faith and family. What some might call the salt of the earth. One can’t call him uncomplicated as we very gradually discover in the film that centers around his character, Stillwater. The viewer also learns as we follow Bill’s unfolding story that there are genuine limitations on the power of good intentions when a movie is grounded in real life rather than Hollywood fantasy.

When Stillwater opens, Bill is a struggling but earnest, unemployed Oklahoma oil worker. A lonely man, he lives a daily routine of mindless labor, takeout food, and terse conversations. He is a man of few words and an unsettled past. But we soon learn that Bill has another aspect to his life. His young adult daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) is in prison in Marseilles, France, serving a sentence for the murder of her girlfriend, a crime she maintains she didn’t commit.

When the French legal system thwarts Allison’s chances of a reopened case, Bill undertakes an investigation on his own to clear his daughter in a city and country where he is a stranger, both to its language and to its culture. For a while, Stillwater plays out like an Okie rendition of Taken.

Matt Damon (Bill) with Camille Cotton (Virginie) deliver layered performances in Stillwater.

But after his efforts stall, the focus, and even the tone, of the movie unexpectedly shift. Now we are watching the unfolding of a sweet, modest domestic drama as Bill finds comfort and grounding in an accidental (and French) family. Captivated by a nine-year-old girl — perhaps a reminder to him of a younger Allison — and her actress mother Virginie (Camille Cottin), Bill seems to be making up for his earlier parental failures back in his hometown of Stillwater.

However, as William Faulkner said, “the past is not dead, it’s not even past.” And Bill and Allison’s pasts come roaring back to wreak havoc on the present. What seemed at the outset to be a straightforward mystery thriller, albeit one with drawling Plains accents, evolves instead into a disquieting and complex study of well-meaning but flawed characters. It also demonstrates the profound, irrevocable damage that can be caused by persons with the very best of intentions.

With its surprising tonal shifts and slow reveals (and unfortunately slack middle section), Stillwater could have been fairly dismissible. But in the mostly confident hands of writer-director Tom McCarthy, the movie transcends both its genre inspirations and its disparate narrative threads to have real and lasting resonance.

McCarthy, who won an Oscar for co-writing the acclaimed Spotlight (which he also directed), has made his reputation by creating complex, people-focused dramas that explore topical issues through the lens of compelling characters. He seems to revel in stories and characters that thwart the expectations of filmgoers who want their dramas to conclude wrapped up with a pretty bow. His stories are messy, non-linear, and sometimes even frustrating, because we want the tidy resolution in our movies that often eludes us in real life. McCarthy declines to provide that simplistic outcome.

The director is well served by the nuanced, layered performances of Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, Camille Cottin, and the winsome Lilou Siauvaud as nine-year-old Maya. Damon, whose appealing persona has made him a versatile, bankable star in the Bourne movies and The Martian, does some of his most subtle and convincing work as Bill, evoking the character through quiet moments and small gestures. Cottin provides assured counterbalance to Damon.

One final note, McCarthy makes another decision in telling this story that defies Hollywood convention: substantial parts of the film are in subtitled French. It’s another way that the screenwriter-director underscores the main character’s outsider status, by making us share in his cultural estrangement.

Stillwater is a strange amalgamation of thriller and melodrama, and it is likely not to satisfy strict devotees of either genre. But I found the film thought-provoking and substantial with a payoff that comes not from a cathartic victory of the protagonist, but from his bittersweet journey of discovery.