Matt Damon's American masculinity

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Matt Damon.
Matt Damon. Illustrated | Amblin, iStock

Around halfway through the new movie Stillwater, a French woman asks Bill Baker (Matt Damon) a question that will be lurking at the back of some viewers' minds: "Did you vote for Trump?" His answer is both dramatically believable and a slight dodge: Bill, a well-mannered but rough-hewn working-class Midwesterner, did not vote at all, because of a felony conviction.

Damon himself, like his sometime co-star George Clooney, is known for his liberal politics (or at least a white-guy-in-Hollywood version of them) enough that Team America parodied his supposed outspokenness as far back as 2004. Even those who don't associate him with politics at all may recognize that he doesn't typically play the Clint Eastwood/Liam Neeson-style loner who gets things done his way. Yet that's more or less what Damon does in Stillwater, with a role that showcases his take on a taciturn and presumably conservative American male.

In a fictional story loosely inspired by the real-life Amanda Knox case, Bill is a frequent visitor to France because his daughter Alison (Abigail Breslin), who was a visiting student, has been imprisoned there for the murder of her girlfriend. (The movie picks up partway through her sentence, with strong hints of a recent, Knox-like media circus.) When Alison gets a lead that may help exonerate her, her lawyer is dismissive, and Bill takes it upon himself to continue the investigation. A chunk of the movie is sort of like Taken, but if Neeson's character had to work with (or at least around) the actual justice system and without such a particular set of skills.

Co-writer and director Tom McCarthy goes some surprising places from there, especially in Bill's unusual relationship with Virginie (Camille Cottin), a French woman who begins as his hotel-room neighbor, becomes his ad-hoc translator, and lingers in the story longer than expected. Sometimes, the movie itself feels European in its ambiguities and complexities — with the noticeable difference that it features not just a major American movie star, but an especially American movie star.

Looking back, a great many of Damon's roles trade on that All-American quality: the golden-boys-in-the-rough of Good Will Hunting and Rounders; the can-do astronaut at the center of The Martian; even, less flatteringly, the bumbling hero of the satire Downsizing. He's not an actor prone to assuming non-American accents, and sometimes his innate American-ness has a darker side. Multiple filmmakers have used him as a surprise third-act villain — most recently Steven Soderbergh, who seems to enjoy toying with Damon's haloed image more than just about anyone, in the July release No Sudden Move. In that movie, Damon pops up as a slick auto executive in the mid-1950s, nonchalantly informing the criminal antiheroes how little their actions will affect a moneyed, connected man like himself, as the actor seems to relish his haughtiness. Damon's signature character, the amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne, combines both sides of his American image: He's an unassuming good guy who doesn't fully remember his past as a destructive American killing machine.

There's also duality at play in Stillwater, though in a trickier way. Damon muffles his star glow with a lower voice and a less athletic appearance; Bill is the type of guy whose steadfast dedication to calling strangers "sir" or (especially) "ma'am" can come across either meticulously polite or vaguely hostile, depending on the situation. By playing this part at all, Damon risks condescension, either by making Bill a salt-of-the-earth Regular Guy hero blessed with his movie-star charisma (and an explanatory Trump Pass), or by picking apart the guy's red-state flaws from a blue-state perspective.

Damon's performance does have moments that feel affected, where he slips on his half-drawl and profile-picture-ready sunglasses, as if playing a guy in a non-Red Sox ballcap constitutes a chameleonic transformation. He seems most comfortable in the quietest moments, whether they involve unexpected domesticity or simmering regret. McCarthy and his co-writers slowly reveal that despite his current dedication, Bill was not an especially present father to Alison when she was a kid. This is less a subversion of avenging-dad cliches than a more realistic exploration of a common trope. Typically, a fraught parent-child relationship is clarified and solidified by the dad's heroic gestures. Stillwater admits how difficult it would be to actually pull this off, for any number of reasons.

Damon's acting is key to this acknowledgment, and keeps Stillwater compelling even when the thriller stuff doesn't always blend well with the domestic drama material. As a performer, he's uncommonly willing to grapple with distinctly American masculinity. Whether it's the toughness of Will Hunting or chilling con man Tom Ripley, he makes a masculine façade part of his acting in so many roles. Several actors of Damon's generation have been accused of looking and acting too boyish for too long. Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, tends to play characters with more externalized, immediate anguish. Perhaps sensitivity toward that criticism informs the internal, less gregarious nature of Damon's work in Stillwater and the way he generally gravitates toward "dad movies" like Ford v. Ferrari.

But just weeks after No Sudden Move has him entwining a very grown-up role with its utter villainousness, Stillwater reveals the uncertainty behind those middle-aged dads. They can screw up just as well as the boys they used to be.

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