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‘Stillwater’: Matt Damon excels as a stoic Oklahoma dad on a mission in Marseilles

The versatile actor’s power onscreen overcomes the flaws of this provocative and stirring drama.

Laid-off oil rig worker Bill Baker (Matt Damon) makes regular trips to Marseilles to see his imprisoned daughter in “Stillwater.”
Focus Features

Matt Damon doesn’t get enough credit for having the range of some of his flashier contemporaries, but over a 25-year career, Damon has proved to be one of the most versatile and reliable actors of his time, whether he’s an action hero in the “Bourne” movies or an old-fashioned leading man in fare such as “The Adjustment Bureau” or part of a world-class ensemble in the “Oceans” movies and “The Departed” or doing nomination-worthy work in films such as “Contagion” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”

In director and co-writer Tom McCarthy’s provocative and stirring “Stillwater,” Damon turns in one of the finest performances of his career as he disappears into the character of Bill Baker, a stoic and world-weary oil worker from Oklahoma who has been knocked up and down the block by life and has endured numerable hardships — many if not most of his own making — but is determined to vindicate his grown daughter and free her from prison and in the process find some inner peace and redemption of his own.

Damon’s Bill is a thick-armed, 40-something loner with an American eagle tattoo who has been picking up day-labor work ever since he was laid off from his oil rig job. He’s always wearing a beat-up baseball cap and he has the face of a man who hasn’t smiled much but isn’t looking for trouble, either. Before this character has uttered a dozen lines, we feel like we know who he is and what he’s about — but the next thing we know, Bill is on a plane bound for Marseilles, and when he arrives at his motel, it’s clear he’s been there many times before.

No. He’s not a secret agent. He’s a dad who was estranged from his grown daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) for a lot of her life (Bill spent much of the time in a booze- and drug-fueled haze), and there’s heavy irony in the fact they’ve grown reasonably close after Allison, who was studying abroad, was convicted of killing her roommate and lover. (“Stillwater” is pure fiction, but the main story has obvious and strong echoes of the Amanda Knox case.) Allison has always maintained her innocence, but she’s been in prison for four years, so whenever Bill can muster the funds, he flies out to see her and to bring her a few things and spend some time with her. (Allison’s mother has passed, so it’s just Bill.)

Allison gets wind of a new lead in the case and asks her father to deliver a letter to her attorney — but the attorney says hearsay isn’t enough to reopen the case and the worst thing Bill can do is give his daughter false hope. Bill lies to Allison and tells her the government is looking into the matter, as he takes it upon himself to investigate the whisper of a lead. Now, if this were a Mark Wahlberg or Tom Cruise or even Liam Neeson movie, we might see the hulking Bill spring into action and start taking names and kicking ass, but “Stillwater” travels a much more authentic and muted route. Bill struggles to overcome the language barrier, makes an ill-fated trip to the dangerous Kalliste neighborhood that lands him in the hospital, and generally clomps about and makes a mess of things while trying to keep his temper in check.

A French actress (Camille Cottin) agrees to act as Bill’s interpreter.
Focus Features

It’s only by great good fortune that Bill strikes up a friendship with a kindly French stage actress named Virginie (Camille Cottin in a beautifully empathetic performance), who agrees to act as Bill’s translator and eventually invites to Bill to stay with her and her adorable 8-year-old daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), who takes an instant liking to Bill and gives him something of a second chance to be a father figure. For long stretches of time, “Stillwater” is as much about the evolving dynamic in this makeshift family as it is about the murder case. Bill and Virginie really do come from two different worlds and yet we believe their relationship. Bill prays before every meal and owns two guns and dodges questions about whether he voted for Trump — but this is not some condescending, heavy-handed portrayal of a roughneck, quite likely right-wing American. Bill is smarter than he gives himself credit for and he has kindness in him as well.

But Bill is also prone to rash actions, which leads to a relatively late development in “Stillwater” that is jarring and misguided and lands this movie just short of greatness. It’s a plot development that paints itself into a corner and results in more than a few implausible consequences. But even when the story comes close to flying off the rails, Matt Damon holds steady and commands the screen.