Anyone watching “Stillwater” expecting an Okie Jason Bourne no doubt ended up surprised, but it’s difficult to conceive of disappointment. “Stillwater” subverts expectations and cinematic savvy; viewers have to give themselves over to an experience that transcends not just assumptions but genres. Ultimately whatever film you thought you were watching — thriller or mystery or action — becomes something deeper and more profound: a character study, and not just of one man.
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Oil worker Bill Baker’s life may not be one with which you necessarily identify, but his legacy of failure and regret is all too accessible. He just wants to set things right. And in his effort to help his daughter, who is pleading her innocence from a Marseille prison, he believes not only in the righteousness of his cause but ultimate moral authority.
In this, “Stillwater” embraces social relevance while avoiding didacticism. A different tragedy may have inspired director and co-screenwriter Tom McCarthy, but the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may truly be far more relevant.
Bill Baker wants to do right, is constantly trying to be good, has come to Southern France to save his daughter and ends up adopting a whole new family — but in the end it is Baker hubris, Baker brutality and Baker clumsiness that ends up lasting longer and meaning more.
We realize that an understanding of these qualities despite best intentions, and an acknowledgment of sins, changes the landscape. The character study ends up being one of all of us, with questions for every American as to how we reconcile the past and how we find our way forward.
Tapper is a CNN anchor and the author of New York Times bestsellers “The Hellfire Club” and “The Devil May Dance,” as well as “The Outpost.”
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