Stillwater tiptoes around complex, potentially rich discourse without ever committing to any real ideological principle.
Who is Tom McCarthy, really? Once a semi-successful TV actor, he’s now a director/writer with an Oscar (for his tasteless, screenwriterly Spotlight script) and a “one for me, one for them” type filmography, that’s really just “all for them.” McCarthy has been laying relatively low since 2015, his Academy Awards coronation complicated by the specter of his racist, transphobic Adam Sandler vehicle The Cobbler which got U.S. release earlier that year (arguably one of his more interesting films otherwise, but comes with those massive asterisks). In this aftermath, McCarthy opted to lower the stakes, directing the first two episodes of the dubious Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, as well as Disney+ exclusive Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, delaying his return to the award season runway till now.
Back in line with the tone of McCarthy’s more serious-minded fare, his latest film, Stillwater, is already being positioned as a comeback for this director who never really went away. Sort of a general social drama jammed into the narrative framework of a revenge thriller, Stillwater is a fairly wonky movie that doesn’t end up actually thrilling much or really having anything to say about U.S. social conditions. Like earlier McCarthy joints Win/Win and The Visitor, Stillwater is built around a big lead performance, in this case courtesy of Matt Damon, goateed and stiff-armed, cloaked in the regalia of a working-class, Midwestern dad. As Oklahoma oil roughneck Bill Baker, Damon gets to embrace his tendency toward blankness, affecting a quiet drawl and detached gaze that characterize our protagonist as a repressed stoic, a man very much imprisoned by his own masculinity. Obviously, largely fulfilling the expected appearance and behaviors of a particular, fraught archetype, Stillwater’s screenplay (penned by McCarthy and the writers behind Jacque Audiard’s Dheepan, repurposing a lot of material from that movie) toys with the tension this toxic masculine figure invokes, with much of the runtime devoted to the question of whether or not Bill Baker will fulfill our worst assumptions. Inevitably, McCarthy and co. turn this question back around on us a few times over, though Stillwater never builds toward a cohesive thesis from this, ultimately content to diagnose the state of America as pretty complicated.
The plot, a riff on the Amanda Knox media scandal, sends Bill to Marseilles where his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin, very exasperated) is in prison, charged with the murder of her girlfriend. Having long asserted herself innocent, Allison sees an opportunity to get free when the man she believes responsible for the crime resurfaces, overheard at a party boasting about getting away with the killing. Bill shoulders a guilty conscience, having been an absentee father in his younger days, and so he sees this news as something he can act on to get back in his daughter’s good graces. Soon enough, thanks to a very convoluted series of events, Bill takes up residence with a single mother and her precocious daughter (the source of many cheap heartstring tugs) in the French seaside town, but, of course, as he builds this new life, his inevitable confrontation with this elusive murderer draws closer. While Stillwater‘s screenplay attempts to sell this conflict as a more specific metaphor about America’s current place in the global community, it more cleanly reads as a broader morality tale about the trouble that comes with getting stuck in the past. Ending on a dour note — as is often the case with McCarthy’s work — Stillwater so obviously wants to impress, but it just isn’t a serious movie, thinking it can speak to U.S. social crises without committing to any sort of ideological principle.