Damon plays Bill Baker, a Oklahoman oil rig worker who travels to France periodically to visit his imprisoned daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin). The screenplay, which often lacks subtlety, makes it clear very quickly that Bill and Allison do not get along very well. Baker, however, perseveres with what he sees as his only chance to redeem himself in her eyes after being absent for most of her childhood. On one particular visit 5 years into her 9-year sentence, she hands him a letter written in French - quite intentionally, since this disallows him from learning of its contents. She tasks him with delivering it to her lawyer. Throughout her entire trial and her prison sentence, she firmly maintains innocence in the crime she was accused of: the murder of a young Muslim woman who she had an affair with during her study abroad term.
Before he delivers the letter, he encounters a local single mother, Virginie (an enchanting Camille Cottin), and her young daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud, in a star-making turn). When Allison’s lawyer rejects the letter, Baker has it translated by his new friends and learns that Allison has heard some prison hearsay regarding a man she believes is the true killer. Fully believing his daughter’s claims of innocence, he believes it is only right that he personally pursues this flimsy lead that no one else will. Assisted by Virginie, he wanders around the streets of Marseille looking for a single hint to latch onto, while attempting to avoid detection by the police.
However, it is at this point that the movie deviates from its procedural plot and brings into something more genuine. The widowed Baker is played to perfection by Damon. He is an unabashed American, staying at a Best Western and eating at Subway even in France. He prays before every meal and stringently follows his favorite college football team. The longer he stays with Virginie and Maya, though, the more he grows out of his comfort zone. The three of them together create an utterly believable makeshift family. Baker and Maya, especially have a terrifically strong bond, even though he can only speak English and she can only speak French. It’s a testament to the skill of Damon and Siauvaud that they can create something so genuine with just gestures and looks. With nothing attaching him to his home in Oklahoma, Baker approaches something approximating a fulfilling life. The more he relaxes into his new role in this family, the greater our hope is that he can finally relieve himself of his deep feelings of guilt, irresponsibility, and inadequacy.
The screenplay at this time is at its finest. When the film finally allows itself to take a breath and locate itself, we are lulled into this sweet tale of an American roughneck engaging in daily life 5000 miles away from home. He cooks pasta, buys clothes with Maya, accompanies Virginie to her theater rehearsal, and continues to visit Allison in prison. If the film had focused entirely on this burgeoning family dynamic, it might have been deeply moving. It is only the fault of an overstuffed and impractical third act that send Stillwater off the rails. It entirely disregards Baker’s character development and instead is content to devolve into an unnecessarily complex series of dark twists in Allison’s case.
In fact, Stillwater might have entirely excluded its Hollywood urge for a plot-based story, not just leaving the melodrama on the cutting room floor but also trimming excess fat away so it could run at a more reasonable length. The crime-drama tendencies of the movie are best felt only when exploring the inner psyche of Bill and his relationship with Allison. From the first act, we are introduced to the idea that Bill is not just an irresponsible man, but someone who will inevitably continue to hurt himself and those around him. His daughter believes that he is entirely incapable of cultivating a long-standing relationship with anyone; what’s more, she comes to believe that his self-destructive behaviors have genetically passed down to her. It’s fascinating to see how these predictions manifest, as if some fate had been pre-ordained for the Baker family which they simply cannot break away from.
Unfortunately, there are simply too many disparate plot threads in this movie to cohesively conclude. The heart of the film is undercut by a criminally undercooked Taken-esque narrative and it is disappointing that such a strong family bonding tale was of secondary importance to the screenwriters. Only the ending offers some idea of what has been lost - Baker, having returned to his hometown, takes a look outside at the quiet streets that he is so familiar with, and confesses that this world is now alien to him. It’s a poignant conclusion to his character arc and reinforces the idea that even for a person like him, the chance at redemption presents itself - it just takes immense strength to see the opportunity when extended.
Score: ★★★ / ★★★★★