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Matt Damon stars as Bill in director Tom McCarthy's Stillwater.Jessica Forde/Focus Features

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  • Stillwater
  • Directed by Tom McCarthy
  • Written by Tom McCarthy, Thomas Bidegain, Marcus Hinchey and Noe Debre
  • Starring Matt Damon, Camille Cottin and Abigail Breslin
  • Classification R; 138 minutes
  • Opens July 30 in theatres across Canada

There are some mysteries that are forever out of our reach. But me, I’m determined to crack the enigma of Tom McCarthy. The American writer, director and sometimes actor – his fabulist reporter Scott Templeton is the best part of The Wire’s wobbly fifth season – is responsible for a remarkably up-down-and-all-around filmography.

McCarthy has made sterling Oscar winners (Spotlight) and incredibly charming character studies (The Station Agent, The Visitor). But he also made a politely regarded kids movie (Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made), a blink-and-missed-it indie drama (Win-Win) and Adam Sandler’s very worst film (The Cobbler). His IMDb profile is pure chaos. I love it.

Which all makes Stillwater, the director’s latest film, Peak McCarthy. It is at once highly watchable and baffling. Perhaps I’m still adjusting to life back in the dark of a movie theatre, but I can’t recall the last time I was so engrossed in what was unfolding on the big screen in front of me, then, in an instant, repelled. Once Stillwater’s final act arrived, I fought every instinct to race out of the cinema in a foolish bid to escape whatever ending it was hurtling toward. Reader, I stayed. But that doesn’t mean that you have to, as well.

Stillwater starts off curiously but compellingly, with McCarthy riffing on the infamous Amanda Knox case, in which the American student abroad in Italy was convicted for the murder of her roommate. In Stillwater’s very loose rendition of the story, the accused is the college-aged Allison (Abigail Breslin), the setting is Marseille, and the story pivots not on her jailhouse or legal plight but the efforts of her estranged father Bill (Matt Damon) to track down the real killer.

As the resolutely polite but thoroughly Red State Bill stumbles around Marseille – not falling into any Ugly American clichés, exactly, but clearly out of his comfort zone – McCarthy builds a story that puts character and performance, not standard legal-thriller plot machinations, first.

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Abigail Breslin plays Bill's college-aged daughter Allison.Jessica Forde/Focus Features

On the page, Bill risks coming off like a cartoon: He’s a monosyllabic oil worker who may not have voted for Donald Trump (because, as revealed in a cop-out line of dialogue, his criminal record precluded him from casting any ballot), but certainly ticks many of the MAGA boxes. It could have been a stale, miscalculated role. But as played by a goateed, hefty, constantly on-the-verge of exploding Damon, Bill becomes a captivating kind of screw-up. Especially after he connects with the charitable Virginie (Call My Agent’s Camille Cottin), a local stage actor whose genuinely adorable eight-year-old daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) takes a shine to this strange, pathetic American.

As Bill, Virginie and Maya hesitantly build a life together, and as Allison begins to glimpse the light at the end of her nine-year prison sentence, Stillwater floats by on the effortlessly compelling presence of its performers, and the warmth with which they imbue their characters. And despite the film’s leisurely pace and novel story digressions – there is an entire subplot about the state of contemporary French theatre – I was content to stay with Bill and company for however long McCarthy dictated.

That is until Stillwater takes a late-film swerve into come-again territory. Thanks to a plot development that I won’t reveal, McCarthy’s film falls down an absurdly dark path that makes precious little narrative or character sense. It is all in service, as the ending underlines in a No Country for Old Men way, of deeper themes: America’s moral authority, generational trauma, our addiction to self-sabotage. But whatever McCarthy and his three co-writers are trying to say is drowned out by the clanging ungainliness of their script. I have never wanted a film to end so quickly, and so differently.

Of course, filmmakers should not, and cannot, simply obey audience desires. But they do have to satisfy, or at least thoroughly exhaust, their own ambitions. And here, McCarthy reaches for a profundity just out of Stillwater’s grasp, resulting in an oozy mess that still pains me to think about.

And so the grand mystery of Tom McCarthy remains unsolved. For now.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

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