Stillwater is an empty gesture of a film – review

Stillwater is an empty gesture of a film – review
Despite being inspired by ‘the Amanda Knox saga’, the drama doesn’t reckon with the injustice she faced

Dir: Tom McCarthy. Starring: Matt Damon, Camille Cottin and Abigail Breslin. 15, 140 mins.

Director Tom McCarthy has yet to respond to the tweets Amanda Knox posted last week about his film, Stillwater. We don’t know what he thinks of her accusations, laid out in a follow-up piece in The Atlantic, that his film profits off what she terms “my identity, and my trauma, without my consent”. Knox spent almost four years in an Italian prison after being wrongfully convicted of the 2007 murder of a fellow exchange student, Meredith Kercher – despite the fact that the man later found guilty, Rudy Guede, was already in police custody at the time after his bloodstained fingerprints were discovered at the scene. She was finally acquitted in 2015.

Knox may never hear from McCarthy. She’s just one infinitesimal part of Hollywood’s long history of siphoning from real-life pain, and he may not consider himself as having any moral obligation here. After all, he claims Stillwater was only “inspired” by her story. But, crucially, her doppelgänger in the film, Allison (Abigail Breslin) – here, imprisoned in France after being convicted of her girlfriend’s murder – is depicted in a way that seems to indirectly question Knox’s innocence. Art is not journalism. Storytellers deserve a certain amount of freedom to explore the moral and emotional underpinnings of recent history. McCarthy is certainly aware of that – his film Spotlight, which studiously documented the Boston Globe’s investigation of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2015.

But artists also don’t get to pretend that they live in some bubble where their actions have no material effect on the world. It does matter what Stillwater has to say about Knox – and the cruellest part of it all is that McCarthy comes up empty. Stillwater is an empty gesture of a film. It doesn’t reckon with the injustice Knox faced. Nor does it sympathise with her time behind bars. She doesn’t even get to be the main character. That would be Matt Damon’s Bill Baker, Allison’s father – a completely fictional figure, with none of this family’s details matching up to Knox’s. He turns up looking like a Saturday Night Live skit’s impression of an American trucker, with his goatee and a tattoo of an eagle gripping a skull.

He’s an oil rig worker from Oklahoma who’s touched down in Marseilles to visit Allison in prison. Early on, we watch him as he strides down the hallways of his French Best Western hotel with his French Subway sandwich clenched in his fist. It’s like McCarthy and Damon are trying to goad their audience into laughing at Bill. He stands like a GI Joe doll, his limbs stiff and ready to pulverise any incoming threat. He talks like he’s chewing gravel, in low, monotone bursts. Allison doesn’t even seem to trust her father’s basic competency, since she uses him to pass on a note to her lawyer (Anne Le Ny) which contains information on a potential lead in her case (Idir Azougli’s Akim) and a request not to let her father know anything of it.

When he finds out anyway, Bill decides to hunt down Akim himself, with no real thought of what happens next. Since Bill doesn’t speak a lick of French, he ends up enlisting the help of bleeding-heart liberal Virginie (Camille Cottin, who brings a welcome effortlessness to the role). It’s here that McCarthy attempts to pull the rug from underneath his viewers, as Bill befriends Virginie and her adorable daughter (Lilou Siauvaud) – aha! Bill has layers beyond the blue-collar stereotype. But that won’t be a revelation to anyone who doesn’t possess a blinkered view of the world.

McCarthy, his co-writer Marcus Hinchey, and the two French writers they collaborated with – Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré – all seem to be tunnelling towards some grand statement about the impenetrable cultural divide between France and America. Virginie is a cultured actress; Bill can’t make heads or tails of the play she’s starring in. None of this feels particularly illuminating, and it’s made worse by the way Stillwater flattens and demonises the banlieue (France’s low-income housing projects) as a “no-go area”.

Matt Damon and ‘Call My Agent!’ star Camille Cottin in ‘Stillwater’

Bill is constantly told that, as an American, he could never possibly grasp the racial tensions in France – it’s a bizarre assertion. It seems Marseilles’s immigrant population, as with Knox herself, are treated as mere casualties in Stillwater’s grand vision. If only that vision had some substance to it.

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