Thoughts on Stillwater
God this crow tastes delicious.
All of the trailers I saw for Stillwater just made it seem like “American guy goes to a foreign place to solve his external issues and that also solves his internal issues.” I’m so happy to say that while this is the backbone of the film there’s so much meat around it.
I can’t recall a modern American film so interested in symbols and the memories that end up keeping you in a place and almost making you a prisoner. It’s the thing I’m most interested in about the film. We open with Matt Damon’s character, Bill Baker, sifting through a family’s life that was torn apart by a force of nature. Is this his family’s house? Does it matter? It’s all gone anyway and all that’s left is to pick up the pieces.
American’s really don’t know how to just live at peace with their environment. We are in constant states of great change and great rebuild. Every four years we’re told great change is on the horizon only to be reminded that the more stuff changes the more it stays the same. Pardon the tangent.
Bill arrives at a hotel in France that looks like any other hotel in the entire world. Something he probably did on purpose. To him there isn’t a reason to view France as anything other than a fantasy. This place isn’t real to him nor does he ever want it to be. Even his neighbor turned friend seems to just be there so that he can make sense of this place. She bridges the known and unknown for him and not just in a linguistic sense.
He finally gets to see his daughter, played masterfully by Abigail Breslin, and their interaction is that of a parent who is picking up their kid from the airport for Christmas break. It’s a little stilted and kinda awkward. He asks about work and she asks how Grandma is doing. We’re reminded of the situation when she begs her dad to give her a letter to a French official of some kind. He doesn’t really know the position this person holds because he has no desire to learn about this kinda stuff.
To be truthful, this part of the movie doesn’t interest me all that much. I didn’t care for the Amanda Knox story when it was actually happening so this wasn’t peaking my interest all that much. What did was when the movie explicitly takes a turn. Bill fails his daughter. Not for the first time and probably not for the last.
He tries to take matters into his own hands. A very American thing to do, and is met with failure. He blows it and in the process loses what could be his daughter’s last bid for freedom.
We move forward four months.
He has another construction job. Except for this time the architecture looks a little different. He’s still tearing stuff down or maybe rebuilding it. It’s hard to tell when you look at it that closely. His foreman gives a shout and gesture and we realize that we’re still in France. He’s living with a translator turned sorta live-in girlfriend.
This is when the film turns its head and explores the topic I mentioned earlier. Symbols and memories.
Earlier in the movie, Bill buys his daughter an Oklahoma State sweater. To him, that is the real world. College football and state pride. The name of the town they’re from Stillwater is a symbol for him.
To him, it’s God’s Kingdom.
Even his new family are just stand-ins and symbols for a family he failed. Later on, his daughter is allowed a one-day release and during a dinner, with her new surrogate family she’s asked why she traveled all the way here to study. All she says is “It was far away.” We’ve all had that inkling of just throwing shit in your car and starting brand new.
Memories are funny that way. They’re so constricting when you don’t want them. Sometimes just driving down a street is enough to fully send you on a journey of memories and feelings that have no place in your normal life.
Coming to a red-light on a certain street at a certain time is enough for some people to just drive you away. Far away. Sometimes to France.
Eventually, we find out that the murder is not so cut and dry. The only reason Bill finds this out is because of a symbol he couldn’t lose. He gave his daughter a necklace of the town name and, without spoiling anything, it’s the linchpin to the whole twist. As hard as she tried to get away from her hometown and the memories and feeling that place could bring it still grabbed her in the end.
There’s more in this movie than I talked about. There’s a surprising amount of nuance in the takes on class. Maybe I’ll write more later.
Thanks for reading.