Review – It’s A Hard Knox Life (“Stillwater”)

Co-writer & director Tom McCarthy read about Amanda Knox, her 2007 murder arrest and trial in Italy (see 2nd movie review below), and that gave him the inspiration to write this fictional movie. So, you might say this movie is “ripped from the headlines”, right?

Without so much as a backstory, flashback, or newspaper clipping, we are thrust into what seems the middle of a movie about Bill Baker (Matt Damon), a good ol’boy & general screw-up from Stillwater, Oklahoma that, we learn from information gleaned from exposition here and there, his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) went to college in Marseilles, France, and was arrested & convicted of killing her gay lover, Lina. We pick up this drawn-out character story five years later with Allison still in a Marseilles prison and Bill visiting her again, but this time, Allison shares important news: find some guy named Akim (Idir Azougli) who really killed Lina!

Unfortunately, the judge won’t reopen the case without any DNA proof from Akim. With barely any money and a belly full of American pride, Bill sets out to do the investigation on his own, thanks to Virginie (Camille Cottin), a helpful French stage actress, and her adorable little 9-year-old daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). But the French aren’t too friendly towards this F-bomb dropping Oklahoma redneck, so the case stalls, until Bill finally finds the elusive Akim, but then loses him. Rather than give up and go home, Bill stays on as a construction worker & a handyman around Virginie’s apartment, while getting along famously with her kid and learning the lingo.

Act two switches gears and becomes a Hallmark adult drama with Bill & Virginie living their lives together as roomies & friends, while Allison is having some difficulty hanging around in prison. Then, in act three, we come back to the original plot as Bill sees Akim in a soccer arena filled with 100K spectators! What are the odds!? Anyway, all he needs to do is get a DNA sample from this guy to prove his daughter’s innocence, but will that be enough? Will his budding romance with Virginie ever blossom? And will Bill ever learn to pronounce merci beaucoup correctly with that Southern twang in his voice??

This movie ain’t Taken, and it isn’t your typical A-typical Hollywood rescue film, where the hero concocts some crazy, wild, and utterly hair-brained scheme to get his daughter out of prison by using some elaborate Mission: Impossible plan. Not by a long-shot! This is a thought-provoking, real, heart-breaking, and poignant look at language barriers and Americans overseas. Nobody comes out of this unscathed. Besides Tom McCarthy’s (The Station Agent, Spotlight) beautiful direction, screenwriters Thomas Bidegain, Marcus Hinchey, and Noe Debre filled in the rest of his unusual script. Better bring your reading glasses as most of the movie has subtitles.

Damon’s Bill Baker is a liar, an ex-con, and a screw-up, but his heart is in the right place, as he sincerely tries to do the right thing, even if it means doing something awful, and Damon captures all of this with the look of a man who’s been beat down and set aside. Abigail Breslin is excellent as his accused daughter, but it’s French actress Camille Cottin that steals the movie with her bright and charismatic acting. Also stealing the spotlight is young Siauvaud, making her acting debut, and being totally natural on camera. While it may be a very long movie, clocking in at 2hrs and 20mins, you get a helluva travelogue of the darker/dirtier side of France and a slow, polarizing look at life abroad. BTW: Amanda Knox has denounced this movie because it bears too much resemblance to her own story. Oh, ya think?    

**Now showing in theaters

Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy (2011)

Based on actual events, this made-for-TV movie is an indictment of what happens to Americans breaking the law in foreign countries and the serious ramifications afterward. Hayden Panettiere from TV’s Heroes and Nashville stars as an American student accused of murder in Italy.

It’s September of 2007 and another gorgeous day in Perugia, Italy. . . well, except for British exchange student Meredith Kercher (Amanda Fernando Stevens). Her dead body–stabbed, raped, and throat slashed–has just been discovered in a quaint little cottage by her roommates, all with alibis. But the ones that called the police were American Amanda Knox (Panettiere) and her Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito (Paolo Romio). With some flashbacks to Amanda’s brief days back in Seattle, we see her indoctrination into Italian life, her meet-cute with Raffaele, and how she found that super-nice cottage to stay while studying.

But while Amanda is busy banging her “Harry Potter” Italian boy-toy, the police are hard at work trying to figure out who murdered Meredith and why. The crime is examined and pieces of the puzzle are being brought together, but something isn’t adding up. Inspector Battistelli (Francesco DeVito) wants to solve this case quickly, as does Detective Navarra (Simonetta Solder) and they’ll take anything they can find, even stuff that doesn’t make any sense, plus false testimony from Amanda’s other roommates. Pretty soon they zero in on Amanda and Raffaele as their suspects, even though they have no real evidence, DNA, fingerprints, or eye-witnesses.

Things go from bad to worse when the police coerce, brow-beat, and brutally interrogate both Raffaele and Amanda. Result? Raffaele throws Amanda under the bus to save his butt and Amanda, under severe duress, incriminates herself and an innocent friend, Patrick Lumumba (Timothy Martin). That puts her under arrest for murder, which brings out her parents from Washington to help her (Marcia Gay Harden & Clive Walton), but unfortunately, they cause more harm than help by talking to the ravenous, hate-filled media. The trial gets underway and Amanda doesn’t stand a chance as her life in Italy is twisted, spun, and falsely shown to be that of an emotionless, heartless monster.

False evidence and testimony are brought into court, the prosecutor (like a scene from Rashomon), “shows” how she horribly, mercilessly, butchered Meredith and did it without remorse. Amanda pleads her case to the jury, thinking the truth shall set her free. Uh, wrong! In this 2011 movie, Amanda is found guilty and hauled away to prison and the movie just ends. IRL, however, there’s more! Amanda Knox was sentenced to 26 years in prison with Raffaele getting 25 years, but on March 27, 2015, Knox and Sollecito were fully acquitted by the Italian Supreme Court after all the DNA evidence and testimonies were found to be faked; a “sensational failure” of the law. The real killer, Rudy Guede, was arrested and convicted.

In 2019, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ordered Italy to pay Knox 18,400 Euros (about $20,800) for violating her rights, not providing her with a lawyer, or a competent interpreter when she was first held in custody. Anyway, this movie, though “Hollywoodized” for pacing and dramatic effect, doesn’t hold back on delivering a nasty one-two punch about the treatment of foreigners abroad. So much so, this movie was the subject of massive controversy by everyone concerned. The Italian government didn’t like it, Amanda Knox (and her lawyers) hated it, saying they got many of the facts wrong, and friends of Amanda denounced it.

Nevertheless, as a “based on a true story” movie, it still packs a wallop and makes you think twice about the legal systems in other countries (not that our system is all that great, btw). Panettiere is terrific as the girl whose life goes from playful innocence to utter devastation in just a few months. Harden is great as Knox’s clueless mother and DeVito & Solder are wonderful as the dogged police inspectors.  

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