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Much of the press surrounding the new film Stillwater has focused on its relationship with the true story of Amanda Knox—the American student who, while studying abroad in Italy, was convicted, jailed for four years, and ultimately absolved of the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher. Stillwater director Tom McCarthy (Spotlight, The Visitor) has said the film was “directly inspired by the Amanda Knox saga”; and indeed, the parallels are clear.
The film (rated R for language) follows an American father, Bill Baker (Matt Damon), who hails from Stillwater, Oklahoma, but is in Marseille, France, trying to vindicate and free his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin, playing the Knox character). She’s been in jail in Marseille for several years, having been convicted of murdering her roommate and fellow student, Lina. When the French court system refuses to reopen Allison’s case based on a new lead regarding a person Allison insists is the true murderer, Bill takes justice into his own hands.
A blue collar roughneck with a git-er-done posture of American bootstrap bravado, Bill—played brilliantly by Damon—is a fish out of water in Côte d’Azur. He doesn’t speak French, doesn’t understand the nuances of Marseille’s culture (particularly the dynamics of Arab immigrants), and has little interest or patience to learn. He’s there to problem-solve, not to learn. Much of the film concerns the drama—sometimes funny, sometimes tender, often troubling—that ensues as Bill seeks to be a “savior” of sorts on his own terms, fixing something delicate in a culture he doesn’t understand.
‘Aspects of True Events’ vs. ‘True Story’
Stillwater takes twists and turns I won’t get into here (it’s a gripping film best experienced without spoilers), and it definitely diverges from Amanda Knox’s story in significant ways. But the premise is close enough to Knox’s story that the divergences become problematic—and her public outcry against the film is understandable. To what extent should artists be responsible stewards of a real person’s story that they take as an “inspiration” but then significantly rewrite? McCarthy has responded to Knox’s criticism by contrasting Stillwater—which he insists is “work of fiction and not about [Knox’s] life experience”—with his Oscar-winning film Spotlight, which was more obviously a “based on real facts” story and made in collaboration with the real-life subjects. McCarthy said:
It does take from aspects of true-life events, like many films, but Stillwater is about Bill Baker’s journey, his relationship with his estranged daughter Allison and a French woman and her young daughter he meets along the way. The questions the movie poses about American identity and moral authority are what compelled me to make this film.
I think the line between “aspects of true events” (Stillwater) and “about real-life events” (Spotlight) is blurrier than McCarthy admits, and for that reason the Knox aspects of Stillwater don’t sit well with me. Especially in today’s world—where the increasingly blurred lines between reality and narratives about reality are making our post-truth crisis worse—artists who weave together fact and fiction must do so with the greatest of care. What I loved about McCarthy’s Spotlight was how it celebrated the relentless, unflinching pursuit of truth—a message that Christians, of all people, can cheer. But Stillwater is murkier in its relationship with truth—which is perhaps fitting for these times.
Setting aside its problematic relationship with the Knox story for a moment, we can certainly appreciate the geopolitical dynamics and moral complexities Stillwater explores.
Artists who weave fact and fiction must do so with the greatest of care.
“The questions the movie poses about American identity and moral authority” are indeed fascinating and thought-provoking. On one level Stillwater is a metaphor for certain American involvements abroad, where good intentions were complicated by hubris, low cross-cultural literacy, and lackluster interest in learning from past mistakes.
I saw Stillwater in July, but it’s been in my mind recently as I’ve watched images of chaos in Afghanistan as American armed forces left. Stillwater is a story of an American who goes abroad to solve one problem but ends up creating more, ultimately leaving certain people’s lives more endangered than they were before he arrived. The film is decidedly not heavy-handed in making parallels to American foreign policy, but the subtext is there.
On another level, the film is simply a moral fable akin to something the Dardenne brothers might make. It’s an unsettling, empathetic look at the self-sabotaging nature of sin. McCarthy makes much of Bill’s “screw-up” nature, a nature that also exists in his daughter. The behavior of both in the film shows the difficult-to-break cycles of generational brokenness. There are moments when both Bill and Allison appear to be growing, possibly moving into a healthier place. But there are also regressions, often caused by that most insidious of human vices—do-it-yourself pride—which refuses grace and undermines growth. This “moral fable” level is the one that most affected me—causing Stillwater (especially its third act) to stick with me longer than expected.
Stillwater is about how sometimes our good intentions—justice for his daughter, in Bill’s case—might accomplish one thing, but end up making other things worse. Sometimes helping hurts. Sometimes working toward a good goal can result in chaos when the means to that end are reckless, impatient, or sloppy. We can undertake good endeavors in bad ways.
Sometimes working toward a good goal can result in chaos when the means to that end are reckless, impatient, or sloppy.
But even as this is one of McCarthy’s intended points in Stillwater, it’s also a mistake he makes. An otherwise thoughtful engagement with important themes is compromised by a morally dubious mining of Amanda Knox’s story—without her involvement. For a film exploring moral authority, Stillwater cedes its own—unnecessarily—by recklessly blurring fact and fiction. It’s an unforced error—the script didn’t need a ripped-from-the-headlines premise so directly drawn from Knox’s story. Bill’s journey could have been explored with any scenario of a daughter’s criminal troubles abroad.
Perhaps the lesson here for Christian viewers is simply that trust and moral authority are hard to gain but easy to lose—especially in a post-truth world where all of us are easily tempted to traffic in truthiness and fake news, and make small compromises on facts, when it suits our narratives. When we do, our reputation as heralds of truth is compromised, and the liberating truth we have to offer (John 8:31–32) is at risk of being dismissed. We lose that most precious of all currencies in the economy of persuasion: trust.
That’s a lesson for Bill as well in Stillwater. In trying to do something good and build trust, don’t skimp on the rigors of process and a dogged commitment to honesty. If you do, a battle may be temporarily won—but so much more will be lost.