Stillwater eschews cliché for a timely, nuanced look at the “Ugly American” stereotype

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | July 29, 2021

Opens Friday 30
3.5 out of 5 

For about half its length, Stillwater follows a recognizable pattern: plunged into an Amanda Knox scenario (daughter jailed abroad, possibly unfairly), a blue-collar dad (Matt Damon) heads to Marseille, France to conduct his own investigation. He gets more done in a week than local cops have in four years, all while befriending an attractive local and her vivacious daughter. It almost sounds like Taken sans overheated phone calls.

Then Stillwater does the unexpected: It allows the guns-blazing father to fail (the most likely outcome anyway). Only then does the real movie begin.

Known for better-drawn characters than your average American drama, director Tom McCarthy (Spotlight, The Visitor) subverts the audience’s expectations at every corner. In the beginning, McCarthy lays it on thick: the Matt Damon character embodies every undereducated white man cliché (oil rig worker, Fox News watcher, Oakley sunglasses wearer). It turns out no stereotype has more capacity to be underestimated.

McCarthy isn’t catering to conservative voters. He’s just arguing everybody has the capacity for change. It’s not quick, it’s not easy, but it’s plausible. Stillwater is smart enough to acknowledge the situation puts the characters in major economic strain, and that following four years of Trump’s exceptionalism (arrogant, deeply racist), America’s standing in the world is in the dumpster.

As the imprisoned daughter, Abigail Breslin (still better known for Little Miss Sunshine) has to dig deep to make her character work. She must be innocent yet shifty, vulnerable and unlikeable, rationally angry and barely holding on to sanity.

The “foreign land” setup works beyond the fish-out-of-water formula. Here’s a man who doesn’t even know himself, let alone his daughter, but his willingness to keep an open mind might be his salvation.