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above: Matt Damon and Lilou Siauvaud in Stillwater (2021, Focus Features)

In the Dark

The Troubled Waves of Stillwater

Written and directed by Tom McCarthy ◆ Produced by PGA ◆ Distributed by Focus Features
 
Directed by Robert Rossen ◆ Screenplay by Abraham Polonsky ◆ Produced by Enterprise Productions ◆ Distributed by United Artists
 
A good example of what not to  do when using a real-life story as your inspiration is what American director Tom McCarthy did in his latest film, Stillwater. Dishonest blame shifting is never a good pattern to follow, but that seems to be in play several ways with incidents related to this film and its cast. 
 
The film channels the Amanda Knox story, so much so, that Knox herself recently came forward in the pages of Vanity Fair to damn McCarthy’s tale for misappropriating her life. Knox was convicted and given a 26-year sentence for, among other less significant crimes, her alleged murder of a 21-year-old British exchange student in Perugia, Italy, with whom she had been sharing an apartment. Knox was vociferously adamant that she was innocent, but to no avail. Although the Perugia court’s evidence against her was sketchy to the point of being inconclusive, Knox spent four years in and out of prison before being acquitted and released.
 
The court first voided her conviction, saying it was found to be unsubstantiated, but later convicted her twice more, claiming further investigation demonstrated her guilt after all. Later they again exonerated her. One could be forgiven for harboring some doubts as to the probity of Italian courts, for Knox’s prosecutors had clearly revealed themselves to be laughably inept.
 
So what’s the truth? I don’t know, and neither do the many people who have rushed forward to comment on her case. What is known with certainty is the plot of McCarthy’s retelling of the case in Stillwater, which I am about to unfold.
 
The plot features Matt Damon as Bill Baker, an oil rig builder from Oklahoma whose daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), has been imprisoned for four years for murdering her friend Lina, with whom she was sharing an apartment in Marseille, France.
 
Baker has been making visits to Marseille both to visit his daughter and to try to prove her innocence. Prison visits are limited and its officials don’t speak English, so he seeks help from Virginie (Camille Cottin) who lives in a house near his apartment.
 
Eventually, he gains the opportunity to meet his daughter face-to-face. Under her father’s questioning, Allison admits that she is a lesbian, and that when she discovered that her lover, Lina, was betraying her romantically, she asked another friend to arrange to have her killed. But she didn’t really mean it, not really. What she really wanted was to have Lina seriously frightened. She assumed the would-be killer, a Moroccan criminal named Akim, would not go all the way. Given that Akim is a known criminal of violent tendencies, Allison’s reasoning is more than a little faulty.
 
There’s nothing inventive in the filming of this movie. At best it’s a journeyman effort. Baker works installing oil rigs and handling construction jobs, and for most of the film he stumbles about looking confused. He doesn’t speak or read French, and doesn’t show any interest in acquiring even minimal acquaintance with either the language or culture of Marseille or its people, other than through his chance meeting with Virginie.
 
Learning of Bill’s difficulty in getting to see his daughter, Virginie offers to accompany him on his prison visits. This being an American film, their chance acquaintance inevitably turns into an affair, with the additional complication of Baker befriending Virginie’s 5-year-old daughter, Maya (played by Lilou Siauvaud, and easily the most charming actor in the film). Baker settles into Virginie’s home, walking Maya to and from school daily.
 
There is no gainsaying that this film plays wantonly with what are supposed to be the facts that inspired its fictional retelling of the Knox case. Since it endeavors to tell its audience a facsimile of Knox’s experience, it is fundamentally dishonest. McCarthy and Damon, both claim that while Knox’s ordeal was their inspiration, their film is not intended to be a reenactment of her story. This claim strains credulity beyond the snapping point. 
 
This seems to me an obvious case of special and spurious pleading. The movie’s only departure from the facts of the murderous incident comes by way of location and character changes, such as placing the  story in Marseille rather than Perugia. The other difference is that when Breslin plays the role of Allison, she confesses to her father that she had asked her boyfriend to kill her lesbian girlfriend, Lina. Since Allison has both a boyfriend and a girlfriend, it seems that she is as much bisexual as lesbian. My guess is that this and other variations from the facts of Knox’s life is McCarthy’s lame way of eluding the charge that he exploited her story, thereby avoiding being sued.
 
Interestingly, this same ducking, weaving, and blame shifting seems to be at work in Damon’s recent personal life. For reasons best known to himself, Damon revealed in a press interview that he had used the slur “faggot” in his younger years. This of course brought out the “woke” brigades in force, lowering the boom on the hapless actor.
 
His reaction was to claim that since his daughter had taken him to task for using the word, he had never again used it. Yet by confessing that he no longer employs this “disgusting” term in his day-to-day speech, he succeeded in drawing more vitriol on himself. Damon sought to diminish the gravity of his offense by quickly adding that he only used it when it appeared in a script, such as one he performed under the direction of the rascally Farrelly brothers, Peter and Bobby, in 2003, in a gross comedy about Siamese brothers, Stuck On You.
 
Of course this wasn’t nearly good enough for the wokesters, who proceeded to go to town on Damon and his director McCarthy for whatever outrage, simulated or genuine, they had inflicted on their audiences. But the beleaguered Damon doesn’t need me to defend him, not when he’s making a reported $15 million per film.
 
I suspect that neither Damon nor McCarthy have heard the advice that Oxford don Maurice Bowra regularly gave to his students. Never apologize, never explain, he counseled them. Apologies, however fervent, only serve to whet the appetites of your enemies. This may explain why, on this occasion, Damon couldn’t resist wading further into the quicksand of moral turpitude. 
 
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above: John Garfield and Hazel Brooks in Body and Soul (1947, United Artists)
 
But if it’s straightforward honesty we want, rather than dishonest blame shifting, then give me a truly fictional film noir any day of the week. For example, there’s 1947’s Body and Soul, written by Abraham Polonsky and directed by Robert Rossen, both of the communist persuasion and blacklisted for it. Although they allowed themselves to be enchanted by the communist dream, they nevertheless produced a compelling film that tells an improbable story. When I saw it as a 12-year-old in a 1953 revival run, I was thoroughly entranced by its story of a working-class Jewish boxer played by John Garfield. On his way to becoming a ring champion, he falls in love with an aspiring painter played by Lilli Palmer, who pointedly doesn’t care about money.
 
Watching the film again, I couldn’t help but notice its many cliches and its sappy, melodramatic plot. Nevertheless, it took hold of my nostalgic inclinations. Body and Soul is like a child’s story, but then so is communism, and childishness is one of that ideology’s principal dangers. Childish minds are often swept away by romantic notions that justify the ideology’s fantastic cruelties. This is not surprising. When considered impartially, children often reveal their ruthless capacity for inflicting brutality to get their way. Any dispassionate consideration of ideological extremists, whether communist, fascist, or religious, reveals similar tendencies. That’s why they’re so dangerous. In the pursuit of the perfect society, principles and truths can be sacrificed for the “greater good,” leaving the general run of humanity at the mercy of the cause so nobly furthered by its devotees.
 
Garfield gives a moving performance as the film’s protagonist, the Jewish boxer Charley Davis. Loyal to his friends, charitable to his sparring partner, and devoted to his mother. Who could ask for more?
 
But when Charley begins to make big money through boxing, he finds himself increasingly in the grip of mobsters who, without his noticing, are using him to enrich themselves. He’s their exploited proletariat; they’re his capitalist masters. Of course, I didn’t notice the embedded Marxist allegory in 1953. Why would I? I did recognize, however, that injustice was being perpetrated especially against  Charley’s black sparring partner, Ben. Ben was played by Canada Lee, who was himself a professional boxer in real life, which adds some much-needed realism to the film.
 
The rest of the cast is also notable, especially Anne Revere, who plays both Charley’s mother and his conscience, trying at every turn to divert him from the criminals who are intent on capitalizing on him, literally and symbolically. Revere was a direct descendant of Paul Revere, but that didn’t stop her from playing left-wing roles and abrasive Jewish mothers, to say nothing of the English and Irish characters she played both on stage and in film. 
George McCartney

George McCartney

George McCartney, a professor of English at St. John's College, is film editor for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of Evelyn Waugh and the Modernist Tradition (Transaction).

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