E.There are films based on true cases and films that examine a case for its truth. Tom McCarthy’s “Stillwater” wants to be both. The film is so obviously based on the story of the American Amanda Knox, who was convicted of the murder of a British exchange student in Perugia, Italy in 2009, dismissed two years later, then again indicted and found guilty, and finally acquitted, that Knox was finally acquitted of him complained, although her name is never mentioned. On the other hand, the McCarthy case is tamed in a very different way, with a father (Matt Damon) visiting his daughter in jail where she has been waiting for her trial to retrial for four years. And the place is not Perugia, but Marseille, with everything that follows in terms of display values.
An American in France is a motive that has a long history of its own, and it doesn’t get any fresher here because Bill Baker is an oil worker, a bulky guy who is prone to being fisted. In his search for the real culprit, he meets Virginie (Camille Cottin), who tames him and makes him the surrogate father of her own little daughter. If you leave aside all the details of the milieu and motivation, that’s exactly the story that American cinema has been telling for seventy years. Accordingly, the prison drama takes a back seat, which the film cannot allow in the long run because it draws all of its dramatic energy from it. So the script begins to tinker with the characters, and the direction follows it diligently, always with a fearful sideways glance at Matt Damon and making sure that the aura of the Hollywood star does not slip under the mask of the lower-class hero.
What is particularly interesting about this gentle debacle is that it comes from the same director who, six years ago in “Spotlight”, staged a similarly tricky, but much more far-reaching search for guilt and truth with a completely different patience and accuracy. So it can’t be because of the story alone that “Stillwater” seems so frayed. It must have something to do with the setting, with fantasies about France, the banlieue, football – an important scene takes place in an Olympique Marseille match – and the judiciary that have flowed into the film and alienated it from reality. Twenty years ago the American films by Wim Wenders looked so strangely alien and aloof. Now we know that the effect works in reverse as well. But you don’t actually have to go to the cinema to do that.