There’s been a bit of controversy surrounding Stillwater in the past week. For those who don’t know, the movie’s narrative borrows heavily from the true story of Amanda Knox, a young American student living in Italy who in 2009 was wrongfully convicted of murdering her roommate. Knox was a victim of Italy’s complicated legal system, not to mention some incredibly shoddy police work and a voracious media desperate to cast her as the villain. Much like Australia’s Lindy Chamberlain, she was vilified for not reacting to her situation in a more relatable fashion.
I first read about her story in the final chapters of Douglas Preston’s ‘The Monster of Florence,’ a fascinating deep-dive into a series of murders that occurred in and around Florence during the 70s/80s. Central to that investigation was an Italian prosecutor who saw himself as something of a modern Sherlock Holmes for whom factual evidence was a mere trifle. Knox had the misfortune of landing the same prosecutor; as a result, her case became international news, a living nightmare dragged out over the course of eight years until her eventual acquittal.
Upon Stillwater’s release, Knox accused the filmmakers of stealing her story. It’s not hard to see why. Stillwater tells the tale of a widowed father whose estranged daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), has been convicted of murdering her girlfriend in France. Matt Damon plays Bill Baker, a reformed alcoholic and sometime roughneck living a hand-to-mouth existence in rural Oklahoma. Bill travels to France to visit his daughter and finds himself drawn down a rabbit hole as he seeks to prove his daughter’s innocence and repair their relationship.
For all intents and purposes, Stillwater is Knox’s story shoehorned into a more traditional Hollywood narrative – young girl in a strange land; murdered roommate; trial by media. There are simply too many common facets to ignore. Having said that, Tom McCarthy’s film does try to forge its own path.
Firstly, the story is as much the father’s as it is the daughter’s. Damon is entirely convincing as Baker, a man of few words trying to make sense of an utterly foreign world. It’s Baker’s attempts to navigate this strange landscape that make for Stillwater’s strongest scenes; we can feel his anger and frustration simmering just beneath the surface as his one opportunity to do something right for his daughter slowly slips away. It’s Damon’s best performance in years. It’s also a well made film. Shot in Marseille, we see as much of France’s beauty as we do its ugliness – trash-strewn streets, graffiti, casual racism. It’s a side of France we rarely see depicted in mainstream Hollywood, but nevertheless, a welcome change.
In the case of Stillwater, I have to side with Knox. Despite changing up a lot of story – shifting the location to France, having the accused be in a romantic relationship with the victim, tossing in a very Hollywood-esque third-act twist – it’s so heavily influenced by her case that you have to wonder why they didn’t straight up make an Amanda Knox movie. Personally, I’d say Stillwater is worth the watch, but only on the condition that afterward you check out the Amanda Knox documentary on Netflix.