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Posts Tagged ‘Stillwater’

They say that America doesn’t have a class system; maybe not, but that great nation is certainly not a monoculture, as we are reminded in Tom McCarthy’s film Stillwater (this comes within a hair’s breadth of being a fridge title). Here Matt Damon seems to be making a conscious effort to show his range by playing a character who is a world away from one of the metropolitan or coastal types he is perhaps best known for (even Jason Bourne was obviously a well-travelled and highly-educated guy, albeit in a rather specialised field).

Damon plays Bill Baker, a construction worker and oil rig roughneck from the town of Stillwater in Oklahoma: a stolid, stocky kind of guy, who calls everyone sir or ma’am, has a tattoo of the Eagle of American Freedom, enjoys country music and only takes his baseball cap off when he’s in bed or saying grace. He is having a rough time financially at the start of the film, looking for work without much success, and living what seems like quite a lonely existence.

And yet here he is flying off to France for some reason. It seems like an unlikely destination for a man of Bill’s stripe. Slowly it becomes obvious that he is a frequent flyer on this particular route, a regular at a certain hotel in Marseilles, and a well-known fixture on the visitor’s list at the local prison. This is because his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) is five years into serving time for the murder of her flatmate and Bill is the only one who comes to see her, even though it is clear their relationship is at best somewhat strained.

But maybe this time is different. Allison believes she has a lead that could possibly clear her name – she’s heard from someone who met somebody at a party who claimed they’d literally gotten away with murder – and wants him to take it to the French lawyers. But they are unimpressed by the information; Bill is advised that he needs to get Allison to accept that she has no chance of release. But Bill will have none of this Gallic pusillanimity, and – despite not being temperamentally or linguistically suited to the task – sets out to get justice for his daughter, even if it means venturing down some of Marseilles’ meaner streets…

From that description it sounds rather like the kind of film Liam Neeson might turn up in, maybe even a Luc Besson project: the indefatigable American busting heads and taking names in the name of paternal duty. The thing about Stillwater is that it’s really not like that at all; there’s something very wrong-footing about this film, like a piece of music being played at very slightly the wrong tempo. I came out of it and I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d just seen a rather good film or a distinctly poor one. (Maybe as I write a definite opinion will come to me.)

Well, having said that, Stillwater does have one very obvious and serious strike against it, in that the whole film is built on foundations which are surely unjustifiable from a moral point of view. The murder case at the centre of the story bears such a striking resemblance to the real-life killing of Meredith Kercher, for which Amanda Knox was wrongfully imprisoned for several years, that the whole thing would be in dubious taste even had the scriptwriters not introduced several entirely fictional twists just to serve their story. People may possibly watch Stillwater and assume it’s a fictionalised version of the Knox case, which it isn’t. As I say, surely unjustifiable.

What’s actually slightly annoying is that the film itself has stretches of real class in it. The crime-thriller-vigilante element never really comes to life, to be honest, always feeling a bit flat and laborious, but there’s a whole other angle to it which works rather well: this is partly a character study of Damon’s character, but also about his burgeoning relationship with a local actress (Camille Cottin) and her daughter (Lilou Siauvaud). This is mostly the kind of low-key but entirely plausible character stuff which McCarthy did so well in his debut, The Station Agent. As a drama about these people – some may find the developments between the very conservative Bill and the liberal and cultured Virginie highly implausible, but surely that’s the essence of romance? – the film is rather engaging; I found myself caring about what happened to them and found myself sagging in dismay as…

Well, suffice to say the thriller element lumbers back onto the scene for a climax which is as low-key and understated as the rest of it. Perhaps that’s the thing that makes Stillwater so odd: it’s scripted and structured so it’s essentially a thriller with dramatic elements, but it’s paced and pitched like a much more naturalistic, low-key drama. The style and the substance don’t quite gel for long stretches of the film.

I suppose we should also talk a bit about Matt Damon. It’s a decent character turn and certainly a bit of a departure for the actor; possibly quite a demanding role for him. (He’s in virtually every scene, for one thing.) It’s a complex part, too – a representative of a certain, rather insular American subculture, devoted to his family and seemingly devout, but also capable of making startlingly bad decisions under pressure. Here the sheer undemonstrativeness of the character perhaps becomes a problem, as Damon struggles to find ways to show his inner life and make all these disparate traits come together into a credible, vivid whole. By the end of the film I was in the odd position of caring somewhat about a character who I didn’t entirely find plausible.

Always the film isn’t simply intended as a breath-takingly misjudged comment on the Amanda Knox case, you have to wonder what the wider moral premise of it is – why make the central character a representative of that particular stratum of American society? Bill specifically states he didn’t vote for Trump, but it’s implied this is only because he’s been disqualified from voting for anyone. Apart from this, he owns two guns, doesn’t seem to share Virginie’s liberal attitudes at all, and so on. Is the film trying to say something about a certain kind of blundering American attitude to dealing with the rest of the world? (At the start of the film, Bill still hasn’t bothered to learn any French, despite being a regular visitor.) Or perhaps the message is that paternal love can be as irrational and self-destructive as any other kind.

The deeper thesis of Stillwater never quite becomes clear, but the film has more obvious problems, anyway. It never quite works as a thriller, and the fact that it doesn’t inevitably impacts on its success as a character-based drama. This is a shame, as this is certainly the most affecting and effective part of the film. It’s certainly quite different, and by no means a total failure, but it does have serious flaws that make me hesitate before recommending it. A rather odd and in some respects deeply suspect film which never seems to feel entirely comfortable in its own skin.

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