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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

Stillwater ***

Starring: Matt Damon, Camille Cottin, Abigail Breslin, Lilou Siauvaud

Director: Tom McCarthy

Country: USA

Amanda Knox is a divisive figure in America and Europe. When she was convicted of murdering her flatmate in 2007 during her time studying in Perugia, the American student spent four years in an Italian prison before her conviction was overturned. The reality of her guilt was a hotly debated topic in the media, with many people still believing she was responsible, even after the Italian Supreme Court had definitively acquitted her. Now, director and screenwriter Tom McCarthy (Good Night And Good Luck, The Wire) has released his fictionalised account of her story, transferring the tale from Italy to Marseille and focusing on her father’s attempts to find out the truth about what happened.

Bill Baker (Damon – The Bourne Franchise, The Martian) lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma but visits his daughter Allison (Breslin – Little Miss Sunshine, August: Osage County) in prison in Marseille as often as he can. Jailed for the murder of her girlfriend, she is five years into her nine year sentence. On one trip, she hands him a note to give to her lawyer with new information to look into. When the lawyer refuses to help, Bill takes matters into his own hands, trying to trace a boy who was present on the night of the murder. With the help of Virginie (Cottin – Call My Agent, House Of Gucci) and her infant daughter (Siauvaud) who are staying in the hotel room next to his, they set out to find this boy and finally prove his daughter innocent.

This is a rather different film than you might expect. Looking, on paper… and its trailer, like a crime thriller, the film spends much of its time investing in the relationship between Bill and Virginie, which develops over the months that this simple American stays in Marseille. We watch him become a father figure for her daughter and slowly learn French. Allison describes her father as “unable” to help her and the film revolves around his quest to prove her wrong, with a strong character journey depicted with effortless aplomb by a nuanced and restrained Matt Damon. This basic redneck couldn’t be further from the panache of Jason Bourne, but the actor brings the same strength and brawn, albeit slow and dim-witted.

In reality, the crux of the narrative is about who is responsible for the death of Allison’s girlfriend. The rest serves as window-dressing and even though both Cottin and Siauvaud are compellingly endearing as Bill’s French allies, their relationship is dismissed as inconsequential in the film’s denouement. As a result, clocking in at almost two and a half hours, this is an overlong tangential drama that distracts us and itself from its original purpose. And though this is a thinly veiled depiction of Knox, it’s clear that McCarthy thinks so little of her that she doesn’t even get to be the lead in her own film.

It’s also pretty clear that, despite all legal rulings saying otherwise, McCarthy has his own idea about who was really culpable for the murder. This is controversial in itself and explains why the film has been shifted up the coast and relocated into France. And Marseille does not come off well, looking bleak, gritty and resembling a concrete urban jungle. Much is made of how backward the town of Stillwater is, but Marseille comes as quite the culture shock, where violence plagues the streets and buildings are crumbling beside them. France may normally look like a picture-postcard in Hollywood films, but McCarthy has captured a grim realism more like La Haine than Emily In Paris.

This might be a crime thriller, but thrill it does not. Slow, distracted and unfocused, its narrative makes giant leaps one moment and drags its feet the next. Knox is understandably angry about the film, but it’s so far from the truth in so many respects that it almost feels unfair to associate her name with it. As a result, we have a messy and flawed film.

UK Release: 6th December 2021 on DVD and VOD, released by Universal Pictures


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