Early on in “Stillwater,” a gruff oil rig worker from Oklahoma is asked what he’s doing in the French port city of Marseille. “Visiting my daughter,” he replies. That’s only sort of right, it turns out. He left some stuff out. But truth itself gets more than a little smeared in this fascinating film that’s really a character study pretending to be a thriller. Matt Damon stars as the Oklahoman, a goateed, denim- wearing roughneck named Bill with a sad past. He’s visiting his daughter (Abigail Breslin) in France — that part is true. But it’s not like she’s studying abroad — she’s in prison for an Amanda Knox-like murder she insists she did not commit. A potential break in the case unleashes Bill on the streets of the fading, cosmopolitan Marseille for the true killer. Except he’s no Jason Bourne or Liam Neeson: Bill clumsily bulldozes through a new culture, language and justice system, relying on Gallic kindness along the way. He is cringe-worthy.
He is an American hero inverted. Oscar-winning director Tom McCarthy — who co-wrote “Stillwater” with Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré — at first seems to be trafficking in notions of the Ugly American, that brash boor at the butt of Continental disdain. “You sound very American right now,” Bill is told after failing to grasp that doing something both legally and ethically wrong to free his daughter might be a bad idea. But “Stillwater” is after more than just caricature and, astonishingly, the movie abandons the hunt for the real killer for long stretches to focus on domestic tranquility. The tonal shifts might be too much for some viewers sucked in by a poster and trailer that dwell on the chase. Damon’s character befriends a local single mother (played brilliantly by the French actress Camille Cottin, star of the Netfl ix series “Call My Agent”) and her 9-year-old daughter, Maya, played delightfully by Lilou Siauvaud. Together they pull him out of his cliché. The girl teaches him French and does not recoil at his eagle-and-skull tattoo. She sees though his gruff exterior and offers him another chance at fatherhood, this time with a better outcome. She even converts him to soccer, a sport he initially called a game for “cry-babies.” He finds a connection with her mother — both are single parents, after all — that soon has this roughneck attending the theater (he still insists on pronouncing it “thee-ay-ter”). The trio make a sweet, off-kilter family, but they are tested by the pull from Bill’s biological family, namely his daughter. What lengths is he willing to go to free her? How far outside the law of a foreign country will he go? Will he pick the past over a makeshift new life? Or, as his daughter wails, is he just fated to mess everything up?
Bill is a hard part to pull off, but Damon does, creating a fl awed but compassionate character, made doubly hard since he outwardly reveals little emotion. Damon plays him with a haunted sadness, unfailingly polite (“yes, ma’am”) and devout, honorable as long as you see things his way. He is asked by the fascinated French if he owns guns and he does, two of ‘em. He is asked if he voted for Donald Trump and he couldn’t — felons can’t vote. It’s a cute side-step of the issue, but there’s zero chance he was a Hillary backer. The way Bill walks — stiffl y, unyielding, almost martial — sticks out on the streets of Marseille. He wears high-waisted work jeans, steel-toed boots and a dusty baseball cap, listening to country and eating hamburgers and at a Subway sandwich shop even in France. Can he change? Can he find grace? Those are the questions that constantly pop up in this overly long but thoughtful work. It opens with Bill carpooling with fellow tornado cleanup workers who marvel at why Americans always return to the site of their home’s destruction to rebuild. “I don’t think Americans like to change,” one says. The rest of the film is a test of that observation, using a rare red state hero in a foreign land forced to examine how the world sees him. And the result? It’s sometimes ugly, Americans. “Stillwater,” a Focus Features release that arrives in theaters July 30, is rated R for language and some violence. Running time: 140 minutes. Three stars out of four. By Mark Kennedy