Going into Stillwater, one could expect many things. The marketing campaign, by design, left the film a little vague. Was this going to be another film in the Taken lineage? Hollywood has no shortage of middle-aged male superspies and hitmen. And the list is prestigious: Samuel L. Jackson, Ryan Reynolds, Denzel Washington, Liam Neeson, Ben Affleck, Keanu Reeves, and now Bob Odenkirk. We’ve even gotten a good list of women in the genre, with Jessica Chastain, Kate Beckinsale, Charlize Theron, Karen Gillan, and Carey Mulligan. Matt Damon arguably repopularized, perhaps even revitalized, these films with his Bourne performances. Surely Stillwater seeks to capitalize on this boom of action franchise builders. Right?
Turns out? Not at all.
There are several ways to tell a story to a viewer. You can give them expositional dialogue (easily the most overused method), you can try to mix it into dialogue (often with confounding conversations between characters), or you can tell a story with the camera (the most difficult to achieve, in my opinion). There is no right or wrong combination of these paths, though some seem to pull strongly into overexplaining a film’s plot and disinteresting an audience.
The first and best example I can think of, to illustrate how to do this both well and poorly, comes from the opening moments of Rey in The Force Awakens, and Jyn Erso in Rogue One. Without completely boring you, when the audience is introduced to Jyn as an adult, the filmmakers decided to have her history read off of a rap sheet. No attention to lighting, no action in the camera, little visual exposition. The viewer is sat down and told, in as few words as possible, who she is and what we missed out on.
Looking at the first moments with Rey, we see her live through an entire day of her life. First scrapping parts in a fallen Star Destroyer, then loading those parts and riding into town, receiving meager payment, returning home, making food, etching a line into a wall filled with similar lines, and then eating outside her makeshift door. With few words, we know exactly who she is. We know how long she’s been doing this. We know how hard a life it is. I am in love with this kind of cinema.
Stillwater is a film that is built, in its entirety, using this school of thought.
We meet Bill, a roughneck from Oklahoma. A derrick man, pulling oil from the American countryside. Matt Damon’s transformation into this character is subtle but wildly affective. The Martian and Bourne Trilogy star has added a little weight, dons light wash jeans and a flannel shirt, and sports a beefeater of a goatee. Listening to Marc Maron’s interview podcast WTF (this week guested by Damon), I learned that Matt spent weeks with roughnecks to learn who they are. It’s clear. He carries himself like a man who works hard and doesn’t need to be led by the hand. And for the first twenty minutes of this film, very little is done to hold your hand.
Honestly, reading this review, you will miss out on this experience slightly, though I will do my best to obscure, because my even telling you the action of this moment betrays the film’s desire to show, not tell. To make it simple, yet informative: Bill’s daughter, Allison—played by the very talented Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine, Zombieland)—is locked up in Marseille for a crime she is adamant she didn’t commit. Bill travels to Marseille, with relative frequency, to visit her. When the whiff of a chance that she may be able to get out crosses Bill’s nose, he gets to work, desperate to make up for his guilt of absence.
What follows, the details of which I truly cannot in good faith share, is an incredibly touching and intimate story of a man out of his element by a long shot, doing everything he can (and sometimes shouldn’t) to help. It’s immediately obvious that the Moon is closer to our planet than Bill is to his comfort zone.
But what is truly remarkable about this film is that it never tries to hold your hand. You go in knowing nothing about our “hero” and come out feeling deeply personally connected to him. He’s a dad. He loves his daughter. He tries so hard, through the film, to atone for his sins. It’s truly hard not to pull for this guy, gruff and initially uncharismatic as he may be.
There is a B-plot woven throughout the film with a single mother and her daughter, Virginie and Maya respectively, that is just so darling and emotional that you will beg for a separate movie dedicated to them. Camille Cottin (Allied, Dumped) and Lilou Siauvaud (in her first appearance) bring so much warmth and character to this movie that I caught myself longing for them when scenes went by without them.
Tom McCarthy’s directorial style is well on display, and he flexes his distinct creative insight without hitting you over the head with it. The man behind Spotlight has a knack for telling you more than just what he’s written in the script. I’m curious what his table reads are like, because so much of his story plays out on the screen rather than through the speakers. It’s refreshing and so rare I would even call it unique. And it turns this film with every opportunity to be mediocre or boring into an extremely involving and thought provoking story about love, sacrifice, and atonement.
Go into Stillwater expecting whatever you wish. I can almost guarantee you will be pleasantly, pleasantly surprised. A brilliant reminder that action is not relegated to punches and kicks, but instead can be emotional, personal, and familial. | Caleb Sawyer