The Downside of “Loosely Based”

A Review of “Stillwater

It’s hard not to be swayed by the controversy. Tom McCarthy’s Stillwater purports to be loosely based on Amanda Knox, a student imprisoned in Italy for four years after being accused of the 2007 murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher. It was a highly publicized case that eventually led to Knox’s exoneration in 2015.

McCarthy himself shared the tidbit with Vanity Fair, stating that he only used a portion of the story and fictionalized the rest. The film, after all, is told in the perspective of the father, an salt-of-the-earth roughneck oil-rigger (Matt Damon) from Oklahoma who travels to France to visit his incarcerated daughter.It’s primarily his story. Nonetheless, Knox did not take McCarthy’s reveal lightly. Last July, she took to Twitter to express her dismay, saying “Why does my name refer to events I had no hand in? I return to these questions because others continue to profit off my name, face, & story without my consent.”

The similarities are clear, except, here, the victim dated the accused. Nine minutes into the film, we meet Allison Baker (Abigail Breslin) in a Marseilles prison. She’s halfway through a nine-year sentence for the murder of her roommate, Lina, five years prior. She swears she didn’t commit the crime, so she’s determined to prove her innocence – even if it means reluctantly trusting her estranged father, Bill.

Naturally, Bill struggles with language barrier and initial culture shock. And being exposed to a different country’s legal system doesn’t help. Luckily, he meets Virginie (Camille Cottin), the attractive theater actress next door, who offers to be his translator. Throughout the film, their relationship evolves, and Bill becomes father figure to Virginie’s daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud).

But that, of course, is but a side note to the core story. Soon, more clues begin to surface in Allison’s favor, making Bill more driven. Make that desperate. Sadly, this is where the otherwise absorbing tale takes dubious turns, minus the compelling follow-through. In later sequences, we find Bill taking matters into his own hands, throwing his relationships – and even characterization – off kilter, making it hard to sympathize with either father or daughter in the end.

It’s anti-climactic, given the strong build-up by McCarthy, who won Oscars for Spotlight (2015), and the solid turns by Damon and Breslin, in what’s easily her boldest role to date. And, again, it’s bothersome how this project came to be, knowing how the “muse” was given no platform to provide input. Surely, there are tenets involved in citing living persons as inspirations. And there’s a fine line between putting the audience “in someone’s shoes” and taking liberties in altering details in ways that could inaccurately reflect on the source. That line is crossed here, and, ultimately, it taints the whole thing.

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