Americans are used to watching Americans save the day in movies. That’s the kind of hero Bill Baker wants to be for his daughter Allison — a young woman convicted of murdering her girlfriend while studying abroad — in “Spotlight” director Tom McCarthy’s not-at-all-conventional crime thriller “Stillwater.” The setup will sound familiar to anyone who remembers the Amanda Knox case: Five clicks in to a nine-year sentence, Allison has always maintained her innocence. After new evidence arises, she writes a letter to her lawyer asking for help. But she’s careful not to involve her dad directly. “I cannot trust him with this. He’s not capable,” she writes.
To a particular kind of man, words like that are a direct challenge. And when that man is played by Matt Damon in sleeveless T-shirts and a bald-eagle tattoo, we expect him to save the day anyway. Maybe he does, but that’s not the reason McCarthy chose to tell this story. Originally, he just wanted to film a mystery in a Mediterranean town, deciding at some point that the French port of Marseille would do the trick. But in the time that it took to make the movie, something changed with America. Maybe you noticed. Certainly, the world did.
McCarthy tells “Stillwater” from Bill Baker’s point of view, but he invites audiences to see the character from others’ perspective as well, to observe how this out-of-place roughneck looks to the people he meets abroad — and especially to a single mother named Virginie (Camille Cottin) whom the gruff widower befriends early on. Back home in Stillwater, Okla., Bill does odd jobs since losing his oil-rig gig. He wouldn’t be in Marseille if not for his daughter (Abigail Breslin). He’s not a tourist, and he’s not interested in learning the language. But he’s not the stereotypical “ugly American” either. Bill prays, he’s polite and he believes in doing the right thing. And if Allison says she’s innocent, then the right thing in this God-fearing, gun-owning guy’s eyes is to help her prove it.
Now, anyone could’ve written that movie. But McCarthy was smart: He enlisted the top screenwriter working in France today, Thomas Bidegain (“A Prophet”), and his writing partner Noé Debré to collaborate and wound up with a completely different movie. Well, maybe not completely different, but different enough to disappoint those expecting to see Matt Damon whip out a gun and kick down some doors in pursuit of justice. (Let Mark Wahlberg make that film.)
Bidegain’s signature — the thing that sets him apart from the vast majority of screenwriters — is that he doesn’t write “the scene where” a specific plot point is supposed to happen. Watching most Hollywood thrillers, that’s all you get, as if the creators bought a bunch of index cards, divided the movie into story-advancing moments (the scene where A, the scene where B) and taped them to the wall, then built the script from that. Bidegain knows we’ve all seen enough movies that such literal-mindedness gets boring, and so he and Debré come at each scene sideways: They let certain things happen off screen, focusing instead on seemingly mundane snapshots that reveal far more about character.
“Stillwater” contains a mix of both approaches — a scene where a friend of Virginie’s asks Bill whom he voted for is a prime example — and while it’s hard to say who wrote what (Marcus Hinchey, of terrific Netflix drama “Come Sunday,” is also credited), the movie’s more interesting for being less obvious. Naturally, Bill wants to clear his daughter’s name, and “Stillwater” shows him going about it. But the cultural barriers make it impossible to get far by himself — a trip to north Marseille’s notorious Kallisté neighborhood leaves him hospitalized — and so he enlists Valerie, winning her over by being kind to her 8-year-old daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud).
Of course, Bill can’t change French law, and it’s not clear that even if he could locate the guy Allison claims was responsible — an Arab who was there in the bar that night — he’d be able to overturn her conviction. But as he and Virginie spend time together, Bill shows Maya the kind of fatherly concern he was too drunk and reckless to give Allison when she was a kid. The guilt of that irresponsibility weighs heavy on Bill, adding another dimension to Damon’s remarkable performance. There’s something caveman-like about the way the actor carries his body, in the scowl on his face and slow drawl of his Southern accent. The character has a temper problem, and from the looks of him, he could tear someone in two — although that might not be advisable in a foreign country.
After hitting a dead end in the investigation, Bill decides to stay on in Marseille. He moves in with Virginie and Maya, picking up a few words of French and playing handyman around the house. To dub this Bill’s redemption might oversimplify things, although something’s plainly changing in him. And that change is the soul of “Stillwater.” Resisting any temptation to be cute, yet bolstered by child actor Siauvaud’s immensely sympathetic presence, the movie gives Bill — as well as audiences — a taste of another life.
Will Americans who haven’t been abroad connect with this part of the movie? Or will they be bored with every second that Bill isn’t proactively trying to prove Allison’s innocence? At 140 minutes, “Stillwater” spends a lot more time on Bill’s new domestic situation with Virginie and Maya than viewers probably expect. But then, these scenes take time, since they’re tasked with conveying more than just the latest development in the case. (By contrast, straightforward genre movies have the luxury of being tight.) Ironically, the clunkiest scene here occurs when the cops show up.
McCarthy has more on his mind, using Damon’s character to “make hole” (as roughnecks do) in various assumptions Americans hold about themselves. Bill serves as a mirror of what foreigners see when a certain kind of cowboy barrels through the saloon doors of another country, hands on his holster, and it’s not necessarily flattering. On the surface, that may not satisfy everyone, but then, to coin a phrase, “Stillwater” runs deep.