Playing out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, Stillwater is a powerful, absorbing new drama from director Tom McCarthy. Matt Damon stars, delivering one of the most nuanced performances of his career. As Bill Baker, a god-fearing former oil rig worker from Oklahoma, with issues of drink and drug addiction buried in his past, he’s also a loving father, clinging on to the one good thing he has in his life: daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin).
Early in the film, Bill is on a plane to Marseille. He speaks no French, and has no interest in learning, which makes his journey to the port city in the South of France rather surprising. Even more so when it becomes clear this is not his first trip there. The staff at the hotel he’s staying in greet him like a regular customer. It turns out that Allison is in prison, five long years into a nine-year sentence. He flies over the Atlantic regularly, keeping her spirits up, even doing her laundry.
Allison, who was an overseas student in Marseille, was convicted of murdering her girlfriend, but she maintains her innocence. When Bill arrives on his latest trip, she gives him a letter to pass on to her French lawyer, requesting she reopen the case. New evidence has come to light. Word has got to her of a young French-Muslim man, Akim, who boasted of stabbing a girl and getting away with it. The lawyer refuses, but Bill tells Allison otherwise, deciding to seek out Akim. In Marseille, Bill also forms a friendship with local theatre actress Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her daughter Maya aged 8. They seem vastly different, but they find common ground.
The film is scripted by French writers Thomas Bidegain (who wrote Jacques Audiard’s masterful prison drama A Prophet) and Noe Debre (who collaborated with Bidegain and Audiard on 2015 Cannes winner Dheepan), and it benefits hugely from their local knowledge. McCarthy, who previously made the Oscar-winning Spotlight, dovetails perfectly with them; he may be the outsider, like Bill Baker, but he and his protagonist are a world apart.
Stillwater is no conventional action/crime film; do not expect Damon to revisit his Jason Bourne character here. As the film unfolds, Stillwater emerges more as a search for family than for justice. It’s about a man opening himself up to the world, realising there’s more to life than his small world view. Damon’s essaying of the character is thoroughly convincing, while Breslin (who came to fame in Little Miss Sunshine as a child) excels in the best work of her adult career.
The film can be enjoyed simply as a thriller – there are scenes of great tension, including an incredible sequence shot at the football ground of Olympique de Marseille. But there’s so much more to it than that, with the script dealing with complex issues of racism, guilt and innocence. Above all, it's a superb snapshot of just how Americans are viewed by the rest of the world.