Vigilante justice. In a legal system that notoriously seems to forget about fair, reasonable treatment more often than not, it’s no surprise that Hollywood productions have been exploring the theme of taking matters into one’s own hands for centuries now. Long before John Wick (2014), Taken (2007), and Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) re-introduced modern audiences to the notion of a rough-around-the-edges antihero who circumvents law enforcement to finish what the authorities never could, there was Taxi Driver (1976), Death Wish (1974), and Shaft (1971), and many other gritty ’70s films that touched on this theme. Going even further back, countless Old Hollywood films predate these revenge classics by 20 or 30 years: The Bravados (1958), The Big Heat (1953), and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), just to name a few. After all these years and the lingering prevalence of this subgenre, perhaps it’s time to contemplate the impact on the human psyche.
It’s exactly the kind of thing Clint Eastwood could nail, a concept that fits nicely under his umbrella of recent films that work tirelessly to deconstruct the myth of the all-American hero. Although Eastwood didn’t helm Stillwater, filmmaker Tom McCarthy is doing his best to channel him. Surely Bill Baker (Matt Damon) — the Oklahoma father who makes it his personal mission to search for missing evidence that could free daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) from the French prison where she’s been languishing for five years — has seen at least a handful of these films before. They might have even inspired him to take on such an impossible task. It’s easy to picture him sitting in the middle of his living room watching a Taken sequel on cable, killing time after grueling shifts as a day laborer before falling asleep on the couch in a slumber induced by Sonic chili dogs and cherry limeades.
This is the modest life Bill leads when audiences are introduced to him: construction worker, college-football watcher, fast-food eater, and — as is slowly revealed through observation of his daily life — a loner, a widower, and now an empty-nester after his daughter’s murder conviction. The only family he really has in Stillwater is his mother-in-law, Sharon (Deanna Dunagan), whom he often visits between semi-annual trips overseas to see Allison in Marseilles. Apart from the legal case that is uniquely his own, Bill’s humble existence is not unlike the lives of innumerable Midwesterners, Southerners, Northwesterners … any working-class American who doesn’t belong to a coast, in other words. It’s not much, but it’s all he knows, and with his own criminal record that prevents him from voting and the disregard elected officials have for so-called Flyover Country anyway, it’s not like it’s going to change for the better anytime soon.
On what was intended to be a routine trip to France — meet with Allison a predetermined number of times, exchange niceties, drop off new clothes and launder the old ones, then depart after two weeks — Bill’s daughter presents him with a crumpled-up letter for delivery to her attorney. Bill does so, but Allison’s legal team promptly declines her written request due to the high profile of her case. She was convicted of murdering her roommate-slash-lover, after all, and it is highly unlikely that a judge will revisit the verdict. After learning what his daughter wrote thanks to the helpful translation of newfound friend Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her young daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), Bill sets out on his own to investigate Allison’s claim that a man named Akim (Idir Azougli) may have been the true perpetrator of the crime for which she is serving a nine-year sentence. What Bill uncovers not only challenges what is believed about his daughter’s case, but also what makes an American an American.
The latter theme is most prominently on display in scenes that Virginie and Bill share. As the investigation stretches on, he quickly falls into the fatherly role in her household, caring for Maya in ways he never did for Allison while he struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol. (The culture clash that occurs between the trio in their tiny apartment recalls the dysfunctional dynamic of the makeshift family in Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan , which Stillwater co-writers Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré also happened to pen.) Living in such close quarters and with tensions so high, Bill and Virginie grapple with their differing opinions on parenthood, nutrition, religion, the arts, and all the other little things that make up the complicated latticework of their respective cultures. McCarthy invests plenty in subtle shots of facial expressions and silent moments that follow something unabashedly American or characteristically French, allowing audiences time to parse the contrasts in real time and consider the implications they have on the pair’s unified approach to Allison’s case.
Bill and Virginie are an odd pairing, to be sure, and viewers wouldn’t necessarily be at fault if they remained unconvinced by it for the duration. What could a blue-collar Okie and a French thespian have in common? What could possibly attract one to the other? The point of their relationship makes a lot more sense through the examination of a seemingly incongruous subplot about Bill’s unwillingness to care about Virginie’s acting career. He insists that he would be out of place in a theater, that he wouldn’t know what to do in one, and that it’s the last place he’d want to be. When he does eventually go to see her rehearse, he’s right: They’re all speaking French, and it goes straight over his head. In a way, this disconnect represents the relationship between upper-class celebrities on the coasts and the working-class people sandwiched between them: They don’t understand each other, and they don’t make an effort to. In fact, they might even be repulsed by one another. Bill and Virginie are the same at the start: They aren’t exactly repulsed, per se, but their lives are obviously discordant. As they each set aside their surface-level concerns over prayer or food, they’re able to recognize the humanity in the other person they once would have dismissed outright based on identity politics alone.
Throughout its 140 minutes, Stillwater covers a plethora of themes and ideas that one would not expect from something that presents itself as another cookie-cutter entry in the vigilante-justice subgenre. In reality, it’s so much greater than that: an exploration of the effect revenge thrillers have had on the collective American consciousness, a condemnation of the modern justice system, a comment on the complexities of identity, a repudiation of American exceptionalism, and a reminder of all that unites us behind the enemy lines of the culture war. Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy continues to be a man of many hats, and his variation on both the fish-out-of-water trope and the vigilante-justice movie proves to be a remarkably nuanced thing because of this creative versatility he embodies. This isn’t the tasteless, narrow-minded action movie one would expect, about a white conservative hunting down an Arab teen to clear the name of his innocent American daughter. It’s a much more unruly, much more reflexive thing.
Stillwater is now playing in select theaters.