Having established what it is not, Stillwater remains something of a tricky film. It presents some rather crude events, but it is not a crude film. It touches on multiple interesting ideas but does not engage with them in depth. It is a story of various types, although it does not do adequate justice to any of them. As a result, it is both frustrating and moving.
As a tale of family, Bill and Allison have a strained relationship – the scenes between them in the prison visiting rooms emphasise that their enclosure within this narrow space is likely the closest they have been in some time. Scenes of Bill describing their relationship add to this impression, and while Allison is clearly relieved to see him, the subsequent anger between them seems inevitable and, as a result, lacks emotional weight. While in Marseilles, Bill encounters local actress Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). In the absence of a close relationship with Allison, he develops new connections with them. This relationship is affecting as Bill’s interactions with Maya especially are touching and amusing. Virginie’s assistance of Bill does work when it comes from a place of helping others, although a late development feels unnecessary.
As a tale of the American abroad, it is interesting to note how unengaging Bill is. An Oklahoma redneck, or more precisely, roughneck, his skills are mechanical work such as electric wiring, plumbing and demolition. His people skills are somewhat less developed, aided by Damon’s clamped-down performance. His baseball cap, goatee and sunglasses compliment his stocky frame and monotonal responses of ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘Yes, ma’am’ and his regular praying seemingly by rote. There is a strong sense of repression in Bill, which also comes across in his interactions with Allison despite her overt rebellion. Between them, there is evident regret: Allison over the choices that led her to her current predicament; for Bill over seemingly his entire life, or perhaps his inability to express himself. When Bill becomes more agitated, there is a sense of entitlement and that he can get what he wants – as Virginie tells him at one point, he behaves like an American and he confirms that that is what he is without irony or apology.
On the other hand, there is also an acknowledgement that being an American gets him nowhere. How he voted does come up, but does not lead to the answer you ight expect. Without assistance, Bill is stuck, locals do not talk to him, although they do sometimes beat him up. Despite ostensible similarities to Taken (American aiding daughter in France), Bill lacks the special skills of Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills, being specifically the bumbling American abroad. Later events do stray into the territory of taking what you want no matter what, which is problematic both politically and dramatically as the melodrama of this section fits uneasily with the generally down-to-earth approach McCarthy utilises. Frequent shots of the different areas of Marseilles, from the plush lawyer offices to the rundown prison interiors and the impoverished banlieue areas, give a sense of the environment as both lived in but also alien.
The attempts at social presentation echo McCarthy’s previous film, the Oscar-winning Spotlight, where the director expertly placed a newspaper investigation within a wider sociological context and wove an intricate tapestry of Boston’s troubled communities. Stillwater does not present Marseilles in anything like this amount of detail. There are passing references to the insular nature of the banlieue, as well as to immigration in the form of local resentment towards ‘Arabs’ that crudely parallels American attitudes towards Mexican immigrants. The lack of exploration of these topics is frustrating as these moments offer the potential for an insight into attitudes towards others that Allison is herself a victim of. The frustration is more pronounced by the film being overlong – at 2 hours 19 minutes it overstays its welcome with an excess of scenes that, for the most part, lead to little.
However, it is perhaps notable that Bill appears to learn very little over the course of the film. We expect our protagonists to go on a journey, learn more about themselves and provide us with the growth that we like to think comes with experience. By eschewing this typical arc, McCarthy may give the film a kind of strength precisely through that which makes it frustrating. For all our experiences, do we ultimately end up back where we started? The film begins and closes with Stillwater, Oklahoma, and while there is (again) a mild suggestion of seeing things differently, it may be that that revised perspective ultimately changes nothing. Stillwater is a limited experience that does not entirely work, but it nonetheless may offer material to reflect on about our own willingness or indeed ability to change.