“Stillwater” is the kind of movie we haven’t seen in a while. This is a serious, large-scale American film from a leading director, featuring a career performance by a big star. If you feel like the movies you’ve seen are missing something, well, they’re missing what “Stillwater” has – importance. It sounds like a major movie, because it is.
Right from the start, we know we’re in good directorial hands with Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”). Foregrounds show Matt Damon digging through the rubble of a neighborhood destroyed by a tornado. He’s a worker on a work crew and he takes a look at the people whose homes have been destroyed. His expression is more or less empty, and yet these few seconds speak volumes.
They say he’s a hard working guy. They say he keeps a tight rein on his emotions. It is said that he feels and recognizes human suffering, perhaps from personal experience. Moments later, we see him at home, and know that he lives alone and that he doesn’t have much money.
Like the best movie actors, Matt Damon always seems to be himself, but the ego he looks like has a lot of bearing. Here playing Bill – a redneck from Stillwater, Oklahoma – Damon sort of suggests a whole belief system, a whole way of looking at the world. Little of this inner life is ever spoken of, but it is present in his pauses, in the way he looks at people, in the way his eyes convey thought. Damon is on his way to an amazing performance in minutes, and that’s before anything happens.
Then things start to happen. He boarded a plane and landed at Marseille Provence airport. Is this guy a francophile? Not exactly. In a situation not unlike the Amanda Knox affair, Bill is the father of a young woman convicted of killing her roommate. Upon arrival, Allison (Abigail Breslin) has been in jail for four years and needs her father to try to persuade the French government to reopen the case.
The screenplay, by McCarthy, Thomas Bidegain and Marcus Hinchey, does something unusual. For the first part of the film, the story is on the right track to explain how Bill – although he does not know French and stands out as a foreigner – takes it upon himself to prove his daughter’s innocence. But then it seems to change gears completely, to become the story of Bill’s relationship with a struggling French actress (Camille Cottin from Netflix’s “Call My Agent”) and her daughter.
It’s not at all surprising that the writers end up bringing the two threads of the story together. But what’s impressive is the time McCarthy takes to do it and his confidence – well-placed, ultimately – that audiences are so captivated by Bill and his life that they’re happy to follow him wherever they go. it goes, and wherever history takes it. It’s as if the French location has an influence on the film itself, with its European emphasis on human interaction and the rhythms of real life.
Given the chance to really act, the actors respond. Damon is still good, but his performance here is so comprehensive, so restrained and so specific that it has to be considered the best thing he has ever done. Camille Cottin – a rising star of French cinema – seems incapable of having a moment of lying, and Lilou Siavaud, who plays his daughter, is charming throughout, but especially in front of Damon. And who would have thought, at the time of “Little Miss Sunshine”, that Abigail Breslin would remain such a raw and preserved talent?
The result is an ideal fusion of a holistic Hollywood-style narrative with the detailed, lived-in emotional truth of a first-rate European effort. The public will leave with the feeling of having really been somewhere, of having been moved by the people they met and enlarged by the experience. You can’t ask for more from a movie.
NOT“Still water”: Drama. With Matt Damon, Camille Cottin and Abigail Breslin. Directed by Tom McCarthy. (A. 140 minutes.) Starts Friday, July 30 in theaters across the Bay Area.