‘Stillwater’ The Sly Power Of Director Tom McCarthy’s Style

Matt Damon’s new movie, Stillwater, opens by building up to a gentle but pointed bit of misdirection, the subtle sort of deviation from our expectations meant to say as much about the audience as it does about the man at the story’s center — something of an running theme for this particular movie. When we first see Bill Baker (Damon), he’s waist-deep in rubble, the recognizable but devastated remains of what used to be someone’s home.

Bill is a roughneck from Oklahoma, a state squarely, oft-tragically at the center of that mid-U.S. stretch known as Tornado Alley. His main line of work used to be oil rigs; when that labor dried up and he got laid off, he turned to construction. In the wake of a tornado, construction skills are easy to repurpose for demolition and recovery. So that’s what Bill does. He is, at this stage of his life, a maker of things.

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He is a “Yes, ma’am” type of guy with an Okie drawl, eyes often hiding behind his wraparound shades, jeans stiff, cap grimed with years of oil and sweat, and an array of plaid shirts, bulgy with hard-working, middle-age fat and muscle, that tells us there’s little distance between a work uniform and everyday life for this man. He’s in France but does not speak French. When it comes to picking accommodations, he opts for what must feel like a slice of home: a Best Western. He is pronouncedly, unabashedly, though not quite crudely, a so-called red-blooded American.

So, a fish out of water — and eventually gasping for breath. Stillwater, which was directed and co-written by Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), has been advertised and described as a thriller. But it doesn’t open like one. It opens like this: with a slow accrual of details, in which it’s almost easy to miss Bill noticing what appear to be oil refineries just outside of Marseilles, as if he plans to stay awhile; or the fact that the hotel workers already know Bill’s name, making him less of a stranger in a strange land than, to the French eye, simply a little strange.

This is an apt choice for a story in which a sense of being out of place while increasingly desperate, having to rely on others while navigating utterly unfamiliar cultural terrain, is going to matter a great deal; it is, in so many ways, the point of the story.

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