Monday, August 16, 2021

Stillwater Doesn’t Run Deep

Camille Cottin in Stillwater.

There are two terrific scenes early on in Stillwater, the new movie from director Tom McCarthy. Matt Damon plays Bill, an Oklahoma oil rigger and construction worker who takes periodic trips to Marseilles to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), who’s in prison there for killing her female lover while Allison was a college student. Like Amanda Knox, whose story partly inspired the movie’s set-up, Allison has continuously proclaimed her innocence.  She’s sure that Lina’s murderer was a seedy young man, one of Lina’s assortment of lovers, whom the police were unable to track down. On this visit she hands her father a letter she’s written in French to her lawyer (Anne Le Ny), asking her to follow up on a young Arab woman who claims to have seen Allison’s suspect. The lawyer dismisses it as a dead end, but Bill doesn’t have the heart to disappoint his daughter – who’s already sat in a cell for five years – so he decides to do some checking of his own. He begins by asking Virginie (Camille Cottin), a French actress and single mother with whom he’s made a connection, to translate the letter for him, and as she does so she realizes with a shock that man she has just met is the father of the American college student who was the subject of the highest-profile local news story of recent years. You can see Virginie struggling to work through her own responses – mostly amazement and compassion. (Cottin is very good.)  When Bill opts to find the young woman Virginie agrees to come along to serve as translator. But the meeting, which takes place at a café deep in the heart of an Arab neighborhood, is a disaster: as soon as they start asking questions, the young woman’s friend warns her that she’s going to get herself in trouble and frightens her into walking out. Virginie has to explain to a frustrated, confused Bill that the issue is race – a white Marseillaise and a white American in territory where they don’t belong are trying to squeeze information out of an Arab – and the tensions resonate with the story of Allison’s court case, where she was portrayed as a white foreigner preying on an Arab woman.

It’s unfortunate that nothing else in Stillwater, which McCarthy (Spotlight, The Visitor, The Station Agent) wrote with Marcus Hinchey and Thomas Bidegain, is as compelling as either of these scenes. The movie that follows is mostly a familiar drama about a man who screwed up badly as a father (especially after his wife’s suicide), sinking into drugs and alcohol and leaving his daughter to be raised by his mother-in-law (Deanna Dunagan) while his work took him away from home – and who is now seeking redemption by throwing himself naively into the low-odds project of clearing her name and getting her out of jail. McCarthy doesn’t generally go in for sentimentality, but here his protagonist’s efforts at compensating for his past mistakes include playing surrogate father to Virginie’s adorable little girl Maya (Lilou Siavaud), winning the mother’s heart in the process. Stillwater papers over the implausibility of this match, and then, in the last third, it throws in a preposterous plot development that pulls it into the realm of sheerest melodrama and recycles ideas from Mulholland Drive and Prisoners.

Damon is an imaginative actor with the resources to convey emotion in a dozen different ways, but he’s miscast as a conservative working-class man who keeps his feelings tamped down. His way of meeting this challenge is to keep them covert; it’s a flat, immovable performance. I can’t remember ever seeing him so trammeled up. And since Breslin (best known for Little Miss Sunshine) is an unimaginative actress, their scenes together don’t give you much to watch – she emotes and he stays the course. I loved both The Station Agent and The Visitor, and I thought that Spotlight was meticulously detailed in its narrative and in its performances; it seemed as though everyone in the immense cast, however brief his or her role, inhabited it completely. But the acting of the children in the Disney picture McCarthy put out last year, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made (about a child detective), was so terrible that I turned it off after just a few scenes; it felt like summer camp. Stillwater is made with skill, but what has happened to this director’s subtlety and taste for nuance? They surface in the first half hour and then vanish. McCarthy is a real writer-director; in his good pictures, the virtues of his direction expand on his gifts as a writer. Though his name is on the script, my guess is that it originated with his collaborators. He can’t thrive on subpar material.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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