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  • Nate Adams

Review: Matt Damon anchors murky 'Stillwater'

Courtesy of Focus Features


“Welcome back” are the words uttered to Oklahoman oil rigger Bill Baker as he checks into his grungy Best Western hotel in Marseilles, France, a signal this tatted, soft-spoken, not entirely enthusiastic blue collar gruff has been here before. Matt Damon plays Baker in Tom McCarthy’s overlong and oddly structured “Stillwater,” a sobering fish-out-of-water tale with remnants of “Taken,” but those expecting Damon to go full Jason Bourne should keep their expectations in check, the film is more layered than its surface would have you believe.

Unafraid to touch on the cultural barriers that befalls someone like Baker, a God-fearing, gun loving father trying to clear his daughter’s name for the murder of her French Arab girlfriend, “Stillwater” leaps and charges in several directions before ending up at its final destination. That it manages to interweave and zag as much as it does and still, somewhat, make sense is remarkable considering its lengthy 140-minute runtime delivers two thirds of a movie worth investing in and a last chunk coming across like a big “gotcha” moment on an episode of “CSI.”

But it's Damon, somber and stoic, who anchors the film's murkier elements. He doesn’t give much emotion, saying more with his eyes and facial expressions (hello goatee!) than the showier portrayal from Abigail Breslin playing his locked-up daughter, Allison, currently on year five of a nine-year stint. On his latest visit, Allison begs dad that he pass a letter to her lawyer, which is discovered as a plea to reopen the case as breakthrough evidence and DNA signals a new suspect, a local boy named Akim, could prove her innocence. Easier said than done, and when the courts refuse to consider the letter, Bill goes full detective mode, taking it upon himself to seek answers and find truth in a city he knows absolutely nothing about.

Unlike “Taken” or “Jason Bourne,” Damon’s Bill isn’t a lethal, highly trained operative with years of combat under his belt, but a lowly rig worker caught in the middle of a sandstorm. He can’t speak French, nor does he know the first place to start scavenging for the one they call Akim. Lucky for him (and the plot), he meets Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her young, adorable daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) who provides both the stability he needs during his journey and a translator. It’s one of the better laid foundations in “Stillwater,” even if it's hard to wrap your head around why this mother/daughter duo, within minutes of meeting, become so committed to his cause. Eventually, after the investigation hits many snags, Bill moves in with them and a romantic courtship all but ensues, allowing the disgruntled father-figure to retroactively be the dad he always should have been for Allison.

It almost wins you over until “Stillwater” shifts gears into a rouge hostage thriller on a dime. The final stretch is a disjointed conundrum, seemingly spliced in from another movie where chance encounters and unexplained plot conveniences save the day. By the time “Stillwater” wraps up the main storyline, our characters have ironically found themselves back where it all began. At his best, McCarthy flirts with the fundamentals of racism and western culture stereotypes (Bill at one point is asked if he voted for Trump), though it’s only mentioned in passing. There’s a lotta movie here with plenty of tasteful moments (the dynamic between Bill and little Maya who teaches him French is moving while the chemistry between Damon and Cottin rattles) that otherwise keep “Stillwater” from completely capsizing. Tread lightly.

Grade: C+

STILLWATER opens in theaters Friday, July 30th


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