At the start of “Stillwater”, a gruff Oklahoma oil rig worker is asked what he is doing in the French port city of Marseille. “I’m visiting my daughter,” he replies.
It’s just sort of, it turns out. He forgot some stuff. But the truth itself is more than a little messed up in this fascinating film which is truly a character study purporting to be a thriller.
Matt Damon stars as the Oklahoman, a denim-wearing goatee thug named Bill with a sad past. He is visiting his daughter (Abigail Breslin) in France – this part is true. But it’s not like she’s studying abroad – she’s in jail for an Amanda Knox-style murder that she insists she didn’t commit.
A potential breakdown of the affair unleashes Bill in the streets of discolored and cosmopolitan Marseille for the real killer. Except he’s not Jason Bourne or Liam Neeson: Bill awkwardly bulldozes through a new culture, new language, and new justice system, relying on Gallic kindness along the way. He is worthy to cringe. He’s a reverse American hero.
Oscar-winning director Tom McCarthy – who co-wrote “Stillwater” with Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré – initially seems to traffic notions of the Ugly American, this brash boor with the ass of continental disdain.
“You look very American right now,” Bill says after failing to understand that doing something wrong both legally and ethically to free his daughter might be a bad idea.
But “Stillwater” seeks more than caricature, and surprisingly, the film abandons the hunt for the real killer for extended periods of time to focus on domestic tranquility. The tonal changes might be too big for some viewers sucked into a poster and trailer lingering over the chase.
Damon’s character befriends a local single mother (played brilliantly by French actress Camille Cottin, star of the Netflix series “Call My Agent”) and her 9-year-old daughter, Maya, delightfully played by Lilou Siauvaud. Together, they take him out of his cliché.
The girl teaches him French and does not shy away from his eagle and skull tattoo. She sees through his gruff exterior and offers him another chance at fatherhood, this time with a better result. She even converted him to football, a sport he first called a game for “mourners.”
He finds a connection to his mother – both are single parents, after all – who soon has this thug attending the theater (he still insists on pronouncing it “thee-ay-ter”). The trio are a sweet and quirky family, but they are tested by the attraction of Bill’s biological family, namely his daughter.
How far is he willing to go to free her? How far will it go outside the law of a foreign country? Will he choose the past over a new life of fortune? Or, as his daughter moans, is he just destined to ruin everything?
Bill is a difficult part to pull off, but Damon does it, creating a flawed yet compassionate character made doubly difficult because he outwardly reveals little emotion. Damon plays it with haunted sadness, unfailing politeness (“yes, ma’am”) and devout, honorable as long as you see it his way.
The fascinated French ask him if he owns any firearms and he owns two. He is asked if he voted for Donald Trump and he couldn’t – criminals can’t vote. It’s a nice step aside from the problem, but there’s no way he’s a Hillary supporter.
The way Bill walks – stiff, inflexible, almost martial – stands out in the streets of Marseille. He wears high waisted work jeans, steel-toed boots and a dusty baseball cap, listening to country and eating burgers and at a Subway sandwich shop even in France.
Can he change? Can he find favor? These are the questions that constantly arise in this too long but thoughtful work. It opens with Bill’s carpool with other tornado clean-up workers who marvel at why Americans always return to the site of their home destruction to rebuild.
“I don’t think Americans like to change,” said one. The rest of the film is a test of that observation, using a rare Red State hero in a foreign land forced to examine how the world sees him. And the result? It’s sometimes ugly, Americans.
“Stillwater,” a Focus Features release that hits theaters July 30, is rated R for language and some violence. Duration: 140 minutes. Three out of four stars.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Children under 17 must be accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits