As a graduate of Oklahoma State University, I spent several formative years living in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
To find out there was a movie that shared its title with my college town and starred Matt Damon no less filled me with a dubious curiosity. “Ok Hollywood, tell me about something I know way more about than you do.”
But then not five minutes into the movie I was whisked out of the familiar confines of Oklahoma to find myself in Marseille, France and threw all of my expectations out of the window.
“Stillwater” is a loving character study where Damon gives one of the best performances of his career as Bill Baker, a blue-collar roughneck who leaves the Oklahoma oil fields for France to be with his daughter, who is in prison for a crime she says she didn’t commit.
Bill’s daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) was in Marseille as an exchange student when she was convicted of murdering her girlfriend.
When a new lead develops in the case and the police refuse to investigate, Bill takes it upon himself to poke around the back alleys of the city in spite of the fact that he is a stranger in a strange land who doesn’t speak a lick of French.
But just when you think “Stillwater” is about to go full redneck Jason Bourne, the story takes a turn, as on his quest Bill befriends single mom Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her adorable daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud).
This friendship makes up the heart of the movie as Bill’s past mistakes and strained relationship with Allison looms over the tiny bit of happiness he’s carved out with Virginie and Maya.
Damon is outstanding and I can use my Oklahoma bona fides to give him credit for perfectly embodying an average Okie dude who answers every question with “Yes, ma’am” or “No, ma’am,” rocks a tattoo of an eagle on top of a skull and orders a chili cheese coney and a large cherry limeade at Sonic.
Bill is a simple man who is often in over his head, but Damon defies stereotypes and makes him a person worth spending a whole movie with because he’s always trying to do what he thinks is right even though he often makes a mess of things along the way.
Oscar-winning writer/director Tom McCarthy (who co-wrote the movie with Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain and Noe Debre) smartly lets the movie breathe and gives more warm attention to the characters, the Oklahoma sunsets and French coastline than the conventional murder mystery.
“Stillwater” defies expectations at every turn and delivers a movie full of heartbreak, hope and acceptance. The result is one of the best movies of the year.
“Stillwater” is rated R for language.