The film opens with Matt Damon wearing a construction hat and beard looking as if he’s stepped out of Bruce Springsteen song. Well yes, but. While Springsteen’s loveable victims have some character and are people you’d like to have a beer with before you drive out of town together, Damon’s character Bill is just a little dull. And, now you mention it, just a bit Trumpy.
In a later scene, someone says to Bill “you voted Trump, didn’t you?” His answer “No ma’am”, is a neat way of sidestepping the audience (as a convicted felon, he didn’t have a vote), but it’s also part of a never fully successful attempt to square the circle of having that nice Matt Damon as someone who’s pleasant enough to be played by Matt Damon, but at heart a bit of a git.
On one level, Bill is the worst sort of ‘Mercan, who has a bald eagle tattoo and a couple of guns, goes abroad only if he has to and even then stays at the Best Western Hotel and gets his food from Subway. When a nine year old girl says “Bonjour” to him, he replies “Hey”, because learning languages is complicated, isn’t it? He swaggers around town acting like he owns the place.
Bill is in Marseilles visiting his daughter Allison who’s halfway through a 9 year jail sentence for killing her French Arab girlfriend. She asks him to take a letter to her lawyer, as she heard some talk in prison about an Arab guy called Akim who’d been heard in a bar boasting about the murder. If the lawyer could only find Akim, get him to take a DNA test and match it to the unidentified DNA that was found at the murder scene, her innocence would be proved.
The lawyer dismisses the letter as hearsay evidence is inadmissible, but can we just take a quick reality check here? Let’s say you do track down Akin, and let’s say that his DNA matches. It’s not as if the judge who convicted Allison didn’t know that there was unknown DNA (as someone mentions in another scene, there’s always unknown DNA). So identifying the owner does nothing to challenge the evidence that was used to convict Allison.
There is one plausible way in which Akim’s DNA would matter, and it is one which is skirted on by the film but never directly addressed. When asked to judge between a young Arab man and a US-American woman, the Arab is always at risk from institutional racism. Yet although much of the plot being driven by the search for Akim’s DNA, Bill seems oblivious how it could help.
Stillwater does attempt to address race, but does this very clumsily. Bill interviews a bar owner who may be able to identify Akim. The bar owner says, sure he’ll identify him, just point to any of the Arab faces on the photos Bill is showing him. If they’re not guilty of this, they’re surely guilty of something else. Bill’s interpreter leaves in disgust, but Bill says, hey, this is how people at work talk.
We are presented with a false dichotomy, between a middle class woman who is appalled at racism, and Bill, standing in for the mythical “white working class” saying but some of my best friends are racist. I think we’re supposed to take Bill’s side here (it is Matt Damon after all), as we are when he swaggers into a banlieu demanding that everyone speak to him in English, and ultimately gets what’s coming to him.
The film also depends on 2 or 3 ridiculous coincidences and a final third which is just risible in its departure from any sense of reality. Nonetheless, there are occasional attempts to move away from the usual stereotypes. The fact that Bill’s daughter is a lesbian, say, or his relationship with a stage actress although he wouldn’t be seen dead inside a theatre (it’s unclear what’s in it for her in the relationship apart from the fact that Bill seems to get on well with her daughter).
It is also good that Allison sees Bill for the dysfunctional loser that he is, though as we see just about everything through his eyes, this Is seen only in a passing glimpse. Rather like the suicide attempt and real suicide, which are both referred to once in passing and then never mentioned again. Here, as elsewhere, Stillwater plays with grown up themes before realising that they are too difficult to address with any depth.
I wanted to hate Stillwater, but for all its faults, it still had some sort of bland charm. I certainly wouldn’t recommend you go and see it, but it’s just not offensive enough to be truly bad.