The best scenes in Stillwater aren’t about Amanda Knox. Or the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher, on which the film – as the now-infamous parlance goes – is loosely based. Stillwater is full of subtle, well-written, and bittersweet moments. Unfortunately, these aren’t the parts that have been underlined in the film’s marketing materials and promotional interviews. For convenience, brevity, and efficiency, Stillwater, a drama starring Matt Damon as the father of an imprisoned young American woman studying in Europe, has been described as having been inspired by Knox’s wrongful conviction and hard-earned exoneration following Kercher’s murder. It’s not an inaccurate description, but it’s an incomplete one. And it has made Stillwater a complicated case study in the tortuous relationship between Hollywood and the true-crime genre.
In 2007, Knox, a native of Seattle, Washington, was studying abroad in Perugia, Italy. She envisioned a future for herself as a translator, possibly a writer. One of her flatmates was Kercher, a 21-year-old student from London. On 2 November 2007, Knox and her then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito raised the alert after finding signs of a break-in in Knox’s shared house. Kercher’s body was discovered in her own bedroom. She had been sexually assaulted and stabbed to death.
The perpetrator was Rudy Guede. It took years to establish that fact, and the narrative around his guilt remains too often muddled, so let’s state it very clearly: the only perpetrator, and the only person responsible for Kercher’s death, was Guede. Guede was a known burglar and had been previously involved in home invasions. Investigators found his DNA on Kercher’s body and at the crime scene. The DNA and fingerprint evidence was “entirely linked” to Guede, investigative journalist and author Nina Burleigh wrote in 2014. In spite of that, Knox was accused of, and then convicted, of the murder. She lost years of her life to a protracted legal process, four of which she spent in prison. Her conviction was overturned in 2011, upon which Knox finally returned to America. But that wasn’t the end: an Italian appeals court reinstated her conviction in 2014. It wasn’t until 2015 that Italy’s highest court definitively exonerated Knox, proclaiming her innocence for good.
The reputational damage done to Knox in the process is hard to put into words. In their case against Knox, prosecutors claimed that Kercher’s murder had been the result of a sex game gone wrong. Tabloids went along for the ride, making her out to be – as Knox put it herself in a 2018 essay for Vice – “a sex-crazed she-devil”. They dredged up her childhood nickname of “Foxy Knoxy” and turned her into “a figure onto which people could project their fears and fantasies, particularly those surrounding female sexuality”. If you’ve watched the 2016 Netflix documentary Amanda Knox, which Knox herself participated in, then you might remember feeling a touch of malaise when journalist Nick Pisa gushed to the camera through chuckles: “A murder always gets people going; bit of intrigue, bit of mystery, a whodunit. And we have here this beautiful picturesque hilltop town in the middle of Italy. It was a particularly gruesome murder: throat slit, semi-naked, blood everywhere. I mean… what more do you want in a story?”
All these elements make the narrative around Kercher’s murder and the ensuing court cases particularly fraught. Yet, Stillwater isn’t the first film to draw from that story. There was the ripped-from-the-headlines TV movie Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy in 2011, which Knox herself has denounced as “terrible”. There was also the drama series Proven Innocent, which aired on US TV for one season in 2019, and centred around a lawyer once wrongfully convicted of murdering her best friend. In revisiting the wrongful conviction story once again, Stillwater walks a familiar yet complex path, and one already contaminated by the many misses of the past.
Knox herself condemned the film in a Medium post ahead of its release. Titled “Who Owns My Name?”, it’s a thoughtful reflection on the power of words, and on the ways in which her name and character keep getting pulled back into a narrative that disrupted her life 14 years ago. “Does my name belong to me?” Knox asks in the piece. “Does my face? What about my life? My story? Why is my name used to refer to events I had no hand in? I return to these questions because others continue to profit off my name, face, and story without my consent. Most recently, the film Stillwater.”
As a work of fiction, Stillwater does a lot to distance itself from its real-life inspirations. Bill Baker, Damon’s character, is a manual worker from the city of Stillwater, Oklahoma. He’s a man of few words, who answers most questions with a “yes, ma’am” or a “no, ma’am” and wanders the streets of Marseille in work boots and a baseball hat. In other words, he’s a far cry from Knox’s own father Curt, one of her most vocal advocates and a longtime business executive. For most of the film, Bill exhibits a stoic politeness broken only by his refusal to apologise for who he is and what he wants. His daughter Allison (Oscar nominee and Little Miss Sunshine alumna Abigail Breslin) has been in prison for five years for a murder she says she didn’t commit, and all Bill wants is for his “little girl” to walk free again.
The setup is obviously reminiscent of what happened to Knox. But Stillwater tells a fully fledged story of its own, inviting themes and reflections that postdate Kercher’s murder. In Marseille, Bill bonds with Virginie, a luminous French theatre actor, and her young daughter Maya. Their relationship is a conduit for one of the best explorations of the cultural differences between the US and France seen on screen in recent years. The question of whether Bill is a Trump voter surfaces in a deftly written and surprising scene. Bill’s brand of Americanism – the white, ultra-masculine kind – is in constant opposition to Virginie’s brand of Frenchness – the bohemian, artsy kind.
What Stillwater does on that side, it does incredibly well. The dichotomy between Bill and Virginie could have been ham-fisted, but it’s not. Virginie is an interesting, kind character, not a caricature of French gaminerie. Bill, too, is more than a stereotype. There is a real narrative arc linking them together. As a viewer, the efforts to create a bona fide fiction gave me the distance I needed to enjoy the film. I was immersed in it and never felt I was watching a sorry excuse to revisit the story of Kercher’s murder.
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That fictionalisation, however, proved problematic for Knox. From her point of view, as explained in her Medium post, it muddies the waters of her own narrative, and she’s already had to fight long and hard to regain some modicum of control over it. “This fictionalising erases the corruption and ineptitude of the authorities,” she wrote about a specific subplot in the movie’s denouement. “How do you think that impacts my reputation?”
There’s also the matter of personal involvement. Knox wasn’t approached in the making of the film. (“I get it,” she wrote on Medium. “There’s money to be made, and you have no obligation to approach me.”) Whether or not to involve the real-life inspirations behind a Hollywood movie is often a complicated question, the answer to which can depend on ethical decisions, creative instincts, and even contractual obligations.
In 2017, Elizabeth Kloepfer, Ted Bundy’s former girlfriend, was “stunned” to learn that Joe Berlinger was working on a movie billed as “a chronicle of the crimes of Ted Bundy, from the perspective of his longtime girlfriend” – aka Kloepfer. She had shared her story in a memoir titled The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy, published in 1981 and at the time long out of print, and wasn’t aware a film was underway.
Eventually, though, Kloepfer was able to get involved in the making of the film, the 2019 Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile starring Zac Efron as Bundy and Lily Collins as Kloepfer. “After getting off on the wrong foot initially, the collaboration we had with the film was a good one,” she wrote. “We were happy to find that director Joe Berlinger respected and acted upon our input.”
Stillwater has yet to find such a happy resolution with Knox, although she has publicly extended an invitation to Damon and director Tom McCarthy to be interviewed on her podcast, Labyrinths: “I bet we could have a fascinating conversation about identity, and public perception, and who should get to exploit a name, face, and story that has entered the public imagination.”
There has been a disconnect between the film’s substance and the ways in which it has been marketed. Its trailer makes it seem like a high-octane thriller and suggests it sticks to Knox’s story much closer than the finished product does. Damon himself has said he worried the film would be perceived as a Liam-Neeson-style action film about “a guy who goes to save his daughter”. Stillwater is a movie that sounds like it could be a lot of things, and it would have been better served with a marketing campaign sticking closer to its essence.
Straying from Knox’s narrative feels necessary to let the film breathe on its own. But for Knox, it came off as a complicated cross between erasure – since she had no direct involvement – and being dragged back into a conversation she should never have been a part of in the first place. Extremely Wicked had a clear option in bringing Kloepfer into its fold: Kloepfer herself was a character in the film, portrayed by Lily Collins. Stillwater was in a trickier position from the get-go.
In 2019, Knox sat down with Berlinger to discuss Extremely Wicked and the process of bringing a real-life story to the big screen. Berlinger told her about his collaboration with Kloepfer; Knox told him about her own experiences being portrayed in films. “The thing that has always bothered me about it is that not many people have gone out of their way to approach me and get to know me before portraying me,” she said. “It seems like everyone else is making a feast out of my flesh while I’m sitting back suffering the consequences, and the only one who ultimately suffers the reputational consequences is me.”
McCarthy, who also co-wrote the screenplay for Stillwater, has been steadfast in his explanation of his process. “We decided, ‘Hey, let’s leave the Amanda Knox case behind,’” he told Vanity Fair. “But let me take this piece of the story – an American woman studying abroad involved in some kind of sensational crime and she ends up in jail – and fictionalise everything around it.” Damon, in turn, told the magazine that what McCarthy wanted to focus on was “what happens after all the cameras go away, and what happens to the family”. In that regard, Stillwater succeeds.
It’s not uncommon for works of fiction to be based on reality – whether that reality involves true-crime or not. Accusations of exploitation and sensationalism aren’t rare either. On the creative side, things can also be more complicated than these allegations make them out to be. McCarthy listed crime podcasts such as S-Town and Serial during his conversation with Vanity Fair. It’s not hard to imagine how several inspirations meshed together to create Stillwater, a film that echoes elements of Kercher’s murder but also manages to emerge as its own entity.
There is no easy answer here. Stillwater is a good movie that does its job as a work of fiction. But it didn’t feel right to Knox, and she’s justified in making her voice heard too. It’s the least we owe her.
Stillwater is out in the US and will be released in the UK on 6 August
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