The geographic distance between Stillwater, Okla., and Marseille is 5,100 miles. The cultural, social, and even emotional distance is much further. Or so “Stillwater” would indicate. Tom McCarthy (”Spotlight”) has directed a film that’s part thriller, part fish-out-of-water story — fish out of Stillwater? — but at heart it’s a character study and a family drama.
The character is Bill Baker (Matt Damon), an oil roughneck who regularly travels to Marseille. Why France? His daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), is in prison there for murder. If that situation sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because you recall the case of Amanda Knox. This is a different story. Allison tells Bill new evidence can free her. Bill sets out to find it. That’s where the thriller part comes in.
What’s odd about the character study is that the character in question is a man who reveals so little about himself. How do you say “laconic” and “inexpressive” in French? (You don’t need to say it in Oklahoman.) Damon plays Bill with a stolid, quiet authority. You come to realize that that stolidity is as much about bewilderment as reserve.
Bill’s tattooed and smokes and has a gut on him. He says grace before every meal and makes the people he’s with join him. Bill also has a past. He’s done time. We don’t know for what — and maybe don’t want to. Either way, he’s a more complicated man than he might appear.
In his last starring role, “Ford v. Ferrari” (2019), Damon played an extroverted, in-charge Texan. It’s fascinating to watch the alterations that go into his playing an introverted, at-a-loss Oklahoman. To the French, both must seem interchangeable: just another drawly American with big biceps who puts ketchup on his food.
Allison is tattooed, too. That’s pretty much where any resemblance ends. What’s odd about “Stillwater” as a family drama is that the Baker family was shattered long ago — shattered, but not destroyed. The way Bill smiles when he catches his first glimpse of Allison on this visit breaks your heart. The fact that Damon presents it so subtly makes the moment all the more affecting.
Breslin plays an initially sympathetic character who becomes increasingly dislikable. Desperation will do that to a person. The performance is quite brave, actually. Actors love being liked.
Bill’s all Allison’s got left, and she knows it. He needs her love. She needs his help. It’s a classic noir emotional equation — except here it’s between father and daughter rather than sap and femme fatale. What’s striking about their scenes together is how little chemistry they have. That’s not a complaint. It’s a compliment to how the actors (and McCarthy) honor the family dynamic, or lack thereof.
There’s another element to the family drama: another family. Trying to prove Allison’s innocence, Bill gets a second chance at domesticity. He enlists the aid of a sympathetic Frenchwoman, Virginie, to translate for him. A single parent, Virginie has a young daughter, Maya. Bill’s search becomes more involved than he anticipated, so he moves in with Virginie and Maya: helping out with repairs around their apartment house and picking up Maya at school.
Virginie is more plot device than character. Claire Cottin (”Call My Agent”) is appealing in a role that mainly calls for her to look concerned. Lilou Siauvaud, as Maya, steals the show. It’s not quite August, but it’s hard to imagine there being a more adorable child in a movie this year.
The quality of the acting makes it easy to overlook how increasingly leaden “Stillwater” becomes — but not easy enough. The plot pivots on A Very Big Coincidence. “Pure chance,” Bill tells Virginie when she asks how this particular set of events eventuated. So give the screenwriters points for candor. (McCarthy collaborated on the script with Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noé Debré.) Now the thriller/whodunit part of “Stillwater” goes into overdrive. “Stillwater” stays leaden, but now it’s also busy. Without realizing it, Bill is forced to choose between his two families. This will alter the nature of both the one that was and the one that might be. It doesn’t much alter the nature of “Stillwater.”
Directed by Tom McCarthy. Written by McCarthy, Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré. Starring Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, Camille Cottin, Lilou Siauvaud. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs. 140 minutes. R (language).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.