Where is the line between fact and fiction in narrative filmmaking? How much do screenwriters care about accuracy when basing a film off of a true story? Clearly, they want to bend the tale at least somewhat; if they didn’t, they would make a documentary. But how effectively can one convey realism in a story that doesn’t necessarily tell the truth?
In his 2015 Oscar-winning film “Spotlight,” writer/director Tom McCarthy goes for realism by trying to stick extremely close to its source material — keeping names the same, sticking fairly close to the real-life timeline of events and making very clear in the marketing that it is the actual story of The Boston Globe team that broke the story. In his newest film, however, McCarthy takes a different approach.
“Stillwater” is based on a true story, but in a much different way than “Spotlight.” McCarthy says that his film is “directly inspired” by the story of Amanda Knox, who was convicted and later acquitted for the murder of her roommate. However, because it is inspired by the story instead of based on it, McCarthy has more room to take the story in a far different direction than reality. What he does with it is far more dramatized and, as a result, more problematic.
The film follows Bill (Matt Damon, “Ford v. Ferrari”), as he travels to France to help his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin, “Zombieland: Double Tap”) after she is imprisoned for the murder of her girlfriend/roommate. When the legal system won’t help his daughter, Bill decides to take matters into his own hands. While there, he also forms a romantic bond with a French woman, Virginie, (Camille Cottin, “Call My Agent!”) and her daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud, debut).
Though the film is inspired by Knox’s story, McCarthy is far more interested in Damon’s character and the contrast in relationships between that of Bill and Allison and that of Bill and Maya. Bill has grown a lot as a person since Allison was a child and seems in a more fit state to be a good parent — a role he is able to fulfill for Maya. Despite its large bending of the truth, the film goes for a realistic tone that fits its visual presentation and the actors’ performances.
However, this all makes the decision for Bill to backslide into committing a serious violent crime in the final third feel completely out of nowhere. It’s mentioned in the film a few times that Bill has a bit of a criminal past, but what he’s done is never explicitly stated. The most we get is that it may be drug and alcohol-related when Allison asks him if he’s been drinking or using again. But the film isn’t about trying to overcome addictions and fighting bad habits even as you backslide into them. So when Bill finally finds the man that could prove his daughter’s innocence, it is unrealistic and unexpected when he kidnaps the man and tortures him locked in the basement of Virginie’s apartment building.
Through this, we also find out from the man Bill kidnaps that Allison had paid him to murder her roommate, something confirmed by Allison at the end. Not only does the film conclude before thoroughly exploring the ramifications of this twist, but the twist ends up being the most problematic part of the film.
Amanda Knox posted a phenomenal thread on Twitter this past week about how her story continues to be portrayed and talked about in the media. In it she raises an incredibly important question about the consequences of adjusting real life into a fictional story: “Turns out, she asked the killer to help her get rid of her roommate. She didn’t mean for him to kill her, but her request indirectly led to the murder. How do you think that impacts my reputation?” There are people who will go into this film with minimal knowledge of the real situation and come away thinking that Amanda Knox may have actually been involved in this murder — which she was found innocent of in 2015. That blame rests solely on the filmmakers.
Ultimately, “Stillwater” suffers from not knowing how real it wants to be. While there are some tense, well-done moments, and the central performances are solid, the film never overcomes the outside baggage it brings upon itself. It tries to go for authenticity but ends up sensationalizing the truth. Its unsuccessful attempts at realism also have the consequence of potentially negatively affecting the image of Amanda Knox. The film steals her story enough that audiences will know who it’s talking about but doesn’t give her anything positive in return. As a result, it does a disservice to the subject that inspired it and its audience.
Daily Arts writer Mitchel Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.