This is a slow burn thriller that draws you in gradually. At first, it’s a bit curious watching Matt Damon become a simple construction man from Oklahoma who is thoughtful, but not especially appealing or interesting. He captures Bill Baker not only in the slight drawl, but in the complete persona of the stereotypical western man, taciturn and direct, but quick to react when provoked. And he is doggedly persistent when he becomes committed to a cause. But he will become involved in an intrigue that is far beyond his imagination.
Bill Baker’s daughter Allison (Breslin) has been convicted of murder and has been in prison in France for several years. We get enough information to learn that Bill was not such a good father and had problems with alcohol. Now, he wants to visit Allison and do whatever he can to help her. He has an unceasing belief in her innocence, whereas she is skeptical on his being able to do anything.
Like many Americans going to a foreign country for the first time, it takes a while for Bill to really get that the French people don’t necessarily speak English. Then, a young nine year-old girl comes to the rescue. She is plucky Maya (Siauvaud) who manages to form a connection with this inhibited foreigner by her fearlessness and curiosity. They bond around tools and handyman projects around the house, soccer games, and the need for her to have a caretaker when her busy single mother is forging ahead with a career in acting.
But Bill’s main purpose in going to France is to get his daughter out of prison. When his efforts to pressure her lawyers and some detectives to forge ahead, he is stymied. On one clue given to him by Allison, he begins to investigate on his own—a true western U.S. vigilante.
This search becomes the suspenseful, tense action of the story like the usual detective thriller. Bill makes some daring moves and comes up against Arabic solidarity on the one side and French hatred of the Arabs on the other side.
In the meantime, his attachment to Maya and her mother Virginie (Cottin) grows increasingly intimate, providing him an opportunity for a do-over as a parent. Allison has expressed her lack of faith in him for his previous unavailability and ineptness, and he clearly wants to improve and be a better father.
The script and the talented actors bringing it to life are the rewarding aspects of this movie. Damon gives one of his best performances of a character seemingly unknown to him, given his background. But he must have researched it well. Abigail Breslin’s characterization of an imprisoned young woman with regrets and justified anger toward her father hits home any number of times for its authenticity and depiction of so many different emotions. You can easily see her ambivalence toward her father.
The overall theme of Bill Baker becoming acquainted with a more cosmopolitan outlook on life is just as rewarding as the drama around Allison. We see both Maya and her mother Virginie showing a kind of joie de vivre that Bill has never seen before. He becomes more sensitive and expressive in response, and gets in touch with his own emotions as he has ever done before.
Writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win, The Visitor, Spotlight) is a wonder in creating dramas for the soul, and I think he has done it again with this film in which Americans and Europeans are in contrast, in the evolvement of a typical clueless American into one more open to change and new ways of thinking, and the different ways to approach powerlessness. For example, Baker’s sense of powerlessness in his daughter Allison’s predicament turning to a sense of efficacy in his relationship with Maya and her mother. But, as we all know, the final conclusion is not necessarily “happy ever after.” Sometimes adjustments have to be made to accommodate to change, and then hopefully embark on another path.
The evolution of a simple man into new ways of being, spiced up with intrigue and hard-won battles.
Grade: A By Donna R. Copeland