Last week, we had a movie about a straight, working-class father struggling to deal with his child’s homosexuality. This week comes another one, though Stillwater takes a different shape than Joe Bell did. In some respects, it’s considerably better. In others, it’s far worse.
Matt Damon plays Bill Baker, an oil-industry roughneck in Oklahoma who visits his imprisoned gay daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) in Marseille, where she went for college only to be convicted of the murder of her live-in French girlfriend. While their relationship was known to be stormy, Allison maintains her innocence and blames the killing on a man she knew only as Hakim, who chatted her up at a bar one night and then walked off with her purse containing the keys to her apartment. French police have been unable to locate Hakim, so when Bill discovers a lead to his whereabouts, he resolves to stay in Marseille and clear his daughter’s name.
This is by Tom McCarthy, the frightfully inconsistent filmmaker who won all those Oscars for Spotlight. His film is best when it’s tracking the efforts of this Okie to adjust to a new place while keeping up his American habits of listening to country music and watching Oklahoma State football games. Movies about France are so often set in Paris. This film gives the country’s second-largest city a turn in the spotlight, a Mediterranean port bustling with Arab and African immigrants with a distinctive white stone architecture and a pride in its scrappiness and lack of glamour.
The film has two French writers (Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré) and two American ones (McCarthy and Marcus Hinchey), and that’s probably how a film like this has to be done, as Bill navigates two massively divergent cultures while traveling between the French coast and the plains of the Sooner State. When Bill goes to Hakim’s housing project on the outskirts of town and starts showing his picture around, the filmmakers know that’s going to earn him a beating from the gangs who live there. His romance with a theater actress (Camille Cottin) plunges him into a world unlike his own, and he becomes a father to her daughter (Lilou Siauvaud) in a way that he admits he never was to his own child.
All this is well done, but the film sustains a fatal blow about 45 minutes from the end, when Bill catches a random glimpse of Hakim at the Stade Vélodrome. His efforts to bring the suspect to justice take a sensationalistic turn that belongs in a whole other film. I do appreciate the script’s efforts to demonstrate that both Bill and Allison are impulsive people with poor judgment, but surely the writers could have illustrated this in a way that isn’t so ham-fisted. A wild and crazy plot development like this needs a director who can handle it, and for all McCarthy’s strengths, that’s not who he is.
This does a grave disservice to some fine performances by Damon, Breslin, and Cottin (she stars in the French TV comedy series Call My Agent!). Ultimately, Stillwater is meant to be a film about how living in a foreign location changes a person. Had it stuck to that, it might have been really good.
Starring Matt Damon, Camille Cottin, and Abigail Breslin. Directed by Tom McCarthy. Written by Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré, Marcus Hinchey, and Tom McCarthy. Rated R.