Matt Damon makes a most convincing Oklahoman in a china shop in “Stillwater,” co-writer/director Tom McCarthy’s wholly fictional tale of an American coed locked up by a European justice system and the father who tries to help.
The story resembles the infamous Amanda Knox case just enough that it bears mentioning. But this drama is set in Marseille, the “conviction by media” was French and not Italian and the convict’s family isn’t AM talk show telegenic and bourgeois, but Oklahoma roughneck, working class through and through.
Considering what she’s been through and the way the movie flirts with her case, it’s understandable that she’s furious about it.
McCarthy “Spotlight,” “The Visitor”), Damon & Co. serve up an “Innocent Abroad” in Damon, a laid-off oil worker, a single parent burning through generations of family wealth visiting his daughter (Abigail Breslin) in a Marseille prison, incarcerated for murdering her girlfriend and roommate there.
The drama is about Dad’s search for a missing material witness whom his daughter accused of being “the real killer,” and the film gets sidetracked by one of the most adorable cases of “mission creep” in the murder mystery canon. Damon’s Bill Baker meets, befriends and leans on a French single mom (Camille Cottin) and her impossibly cute moppet, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), who help him and distract him from his hunt for the mysterious “Akim,” whom his daughter is sure broke in and butchered her lady love, Lina.
But what the film is really about is American heavy-handedness, that “bull in a china shop” allegory, with Damon perfectly embodying a sturdy, flawed and determined man, out of his country and way out of his depth. Baker’s stoicism dominates the early scenes as we pick up the routine of this under-employed “between jobs” high school dropout trying to, if nothing else, light a fire under his daughter’s French lawyer.
But she (Anne Le Ny) is at the shrug and “There is a time for hope, and there’s a time for acceptance” stage.
Hiding this news from Allison and his late wife’s mother, who is underwriting their continuing legal fight, Baker takes matters into his own hands.
This is “Stillwater” at its most compelling and real. This man with a “lost daughter” in Marseille isn’t Liam Neeson with his “particular skills.” This is a ballcap, blue jeans, plaid shirt and work boots Everyman who doesn’t speak the language, who is oil-field roughneck tough, but nothing special.
He says grace at meals, never lets his drawling, charming requests for help give away desperation and just keeps “gettin’ it,” as he describes every job of work he’s ever had.
Baker gets just far enough to get himself in over his head.
McCarthy serves up nervy scenes — interrogations, pursuits. But he lets this quest drift and drift, which at least leaves plenty of room for Damon’s portrayal to sink in. There are actors who never should “play dumb,” and he’s probably one of them. But damned if he isn’t utterly convincing, letting us see the wheels turn, the mistakes blundered into and the flawed reasoning that is all that he has to apply to this problem that would be beyond most mere mortal’s reach.
Breslin gives one of her finest performances as a young woman desperate enough to cling to straws, bratty enough to cast blame, enough of her father’s daughter to make us wonder.
Cottin, who rarely works in Hollywood films (she was in “Allied,” but might be best known for the French film “Dumped”) is perfectly cast. Virginie is the idealized American stereotype of a French woman — smart, effortlessly stylish, sexy and confidently so even if she is just “a stage actress,” not a “model actress” type making movies and TV. She is convincingly curious about this stranger who needs her help, not shy about making him her “latest project” or getting in over her head. We shouldn’t buy the connection or any possible attraction. She sells it.
But you can’t watch “Stillwater” without feeling the drag, noting where the dragging kicks in and muttering to yourself “Hitchcock would have fixed this.” McCarthy spoils the twists and waters down what should be the tensest moments.
This is a dramatic thriller, and while McCarthy loses the drama here and there, the thriller thread plum gets away from him.
Whatever metaphor about an American abroad seeking American satisfaction and an American resolution in a place where “that doesn’t work here” is belabored and buried in the mix. Fine performances aside, this is a classic 100 minute thriller that runs on for an extra 40 minutes and blows the punch line.
MPA Rating: R, for language (profanity)
Cast: Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, Camille Cottin, Lilou Siauvaud, Idir Azougli, Deanna Duggan
Credits: Directed by Tom McCarthy, script by Tom McCarthy, Marcus Hinchey and Thomas Bidegain. A Focus Features release.
Running time: 2:20