On Tom McCarthy's Stillwater
There is a bewilderment that sets in with age. We look around ourselves in mild confusion, heavy from invisible blows, unable to summon the energy to do much more than wonder, and hopefully marvel. What world is this that swirls around me, and when did it replace the one I thought I knew?
It sometimes happens that older people, in having lived for a longer time, are more likely to have made mistakes and therefore be forgiving of others who have misstepped also. To be understanding. Sometimes they're more prone to recognize a person is greater than their worst moment, and that people have the capacity to grow, learn, improve.
Certain other folks, sometimes younger, have the privilege of knowing none of the above. They have the luxury of being unforgiving. They can be didactic in their morality, without compromise, and not know their error. I've done this. But life is not so clear-cut. Life is the trick of accepting multiple truths, and holding them in one hand.
There was a time when I would have looked down at Matt Damon's character in Stillwater (2021, in theatres now) and judged him, written him off as another Oklahoma redneck, defining him by his reductive political views, prejudices, and lack of culture.
I can no longer do that.
The simple fact is that life is more complicated. As director Tom McCarthy points out (more below) about his film's protagonist and others like him, many of these people don't spend a lot of time thinking or talking about politics. That's often more of an urban pastime. The immediate concerns and realities of America's rural poor are the ones we forget about when we chastise them.
Also, if the journey of one's twenties is largely the journey of coming to terms with one's own insignificance, I, as someone in my mid-thirties, am simply unable to consider myself worthy of judging others. Who am I to deem what "culture" is, or assert my definitions of better and worse on another's experience? We grow when we try to understand people, not when we demonize them. We begin to see they are like us: flawed and confused and trying to get by. Doing their best with what they have.
McCarthy's excellent new film, Stillwater, has no political axe to grind and sees Damon's protagonist as merely the product of his environment that he is, trying to negotiate a world larger than he ever imagined. He thinks he can fix everything. McCarthy deftly interweaves the bewilderment that comes with aging described above with the different and humbling confusion of realizing one isn't the hero one always thought oneself to be. Casting Matt Damon is a clever move: he brings a baggage of extreme competence from other films. We assume he'll win. But his– perhaps our– notions of American individualism, exceptionalism, and moral authority are in for a wakeup call. We are left finally at the film's end with a moment of reflection I find both crushingly real and strangely optimistic. It's never too late for an awakening, and they often happen of their own accord, almost in spite of ourselves.
This is something to be thankful for.
Avoid the film's trailer, which amusingly misadvertises it as a thriller! Check out these interviews with the director instead:
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