By: Daniel P’Lopez
Academy award winner, Matt Damon, stars in Stillwater, a new offbeat thriller titled after the small rural town in Oklahoma, where his character, Bill Baker is a recovering alcoholic, ex-con, born again Christian who struggles to find work and redemption from those who have given up on him.
Bill’s estranged daughter, Allison is in a French prison, convicted of murdering her formal lover, Lily. Allison, played by Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine), has been imprisoned for five years already, but the former exchange student still claims her innocence. Bill gathers his things and the little money he has to fly to Marseille to not only see Allison, but is determined to get her out and bring her home once he discovers that a young man at a bar bragged to another University student about killing Allison’s lover.
The plot is peculiarly similar to the true-life story of Amanda Knox, the American exchange student convicted of murdering her roommate in 2007, but released four years later after it’s determined that Knox has been falsely accused of the grisly homicide.
In Marseilles, at a cheap Best Western Hotel, Bill befriends a little girl, Maya, brilliantly played by Lilou Siauvaud, and her mother Virginie (Camille Cottin) that occupy the room next to his. Although Bill and Virginie’s first encounter is not love at first site, the aspiring, French actress eventually takes a liking to Bill and helps him search for a man who Allison says is the rightful killer.
Through some amateur detective work from Virginie, Bill obtains Twitter photos of the accused man, which leads him to snooping around a dangerous section of Marseilles in search of the suspect. His naïve gumshoe questioning eventually lands him in the hospital after a gang brutally beats him up. Ironically, Allison tells her heroic dad he’s “fucked up again” because she initially wanted the court to reopen the investigation concerning the elusive murder suspect. Undeterred, Bill stays on in Marseilles, doing handyman work around Virginie’s apartment and gets constructions jobs through her landlord. Eventually, a loving family relationship evolves between Bill, Virginie and Maya.
As Allison’s release date draws closer, she is allowed a “pass” to be with family for a day. She’s still unable to forgive her father for his past transgressions, and seems unappreciative of what he is doing for her. She claims “life is brutal,” referring to prison and Stillwater, where she lost her mom to suicide. Allison tells Virginie that Bill is basically a “fuck up,” but Virginie sees a reformed man who is kind and loving to her and Maya.
Damon’s performance is transcendental as the reticent roughneck Southerner who’s been beaten down by the bad choices he’s made in life. At the Cannes’s Film Festival, the audience gave Damon a five-minute standing ovation for his tour de force role that will earn him an Oscar nomination, if not the win. His stoic character carries the weight of a man who has faced and conquered his demons and now seeks to make amends with a daughter he has neglected most of her life. It’s not what Damon says that makes his character so compelling to watch; it’s what he doesn’t say, which makes his performance so authentic.
He’s not an over the top hick who preaches about salvation in Jesus or Trump, but his glaring eyes reveal the prejudices he still carries with him to Marseilles, a city of many dark skinned immigrants and Muslims. His stubborn disdain for the city vibrates off the screen. At one point, a coworker asks if he voted for Trump. Damon responds that he voted for nobody – he’s an ex-con, he can’t vote. He’s a man in limbo.
When he prays, he’s a humble soul who seems to be begging for one more shot to prove his humanity. The love he fosters for Maya and Virginie become that last shot, the replacement family he lost in Stillwater, but he jeopardizes that love when he accidentally runs into the murder suspect. His vigilante tactics to clear his daughter’s name puts Viginie and her daughter in danger, as well as risking his own freedom. It’s as if he’s caught in a karmic loop. Life is indeed brutal for Bill Baker as the murder suspect’s forced confession casts a shadow of doubt on Alison’s dubious involvement in Lily’s murder.
Stillwater In Theaters Now