In Depth

Stillwater: does new Matt Damon film exploit Amanda Knox?

New film follows story of female college student who’s imprisoned abroad for crime she says she didn’t commit

Stillwater, the new Matt Damon film out in cinemas later this week, follows the story of a female college student who is imprisoned abroad for a violent crime she says she didn’t commit. 

The fictional woman may be called Allison and be sent to prison in France, not Italy, but there are clear parallels between the film’s plot and the real-life events that surrounded Amanda Knox’s wrongful conviction following the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, in 2007.

Seattle-born Knox and her former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito served nearly four years for the murder in Perugia, central Italy, before being acquitted and released from prison in 2011. They were later retried and found guilty, although by this time Knox had returned to the US, and then they were eventually acquitted by Italy's Supreme Court in 2015.

Rudy Guede, the only person who remained behind bars over Kercher's death, was granted permission in December by an Italian court to finish the rest of his sentence with community service.

Five days ago, Knox criticised those who “continue to profit off my name, face, and story without my consent” – citing Stillwater as the most recent example of this. 

Writing in a blog post published on the Medium platform, Knox ran through some of the similarities between her case and the movie’s plot. “I was accused of being involved in a… sex game gone wrong” with Meredith when we were “nothing but platonic friends”, she wrote. “But the fictionalised me in Stillwater does have a sexual relationship with her murdered roommate.”

In a piece comparing Knox’s case and Stillwater, Slate journalist Heather Schwedel adds that the movie echoes “the way tabloids speculated wildly about Knox’s sex life” and that, in both cases, “a foreign white woman accusing a non-white man of the crime heightens tensions”.

The film’s director and co-screenwriter Tom McCarthy has admitted in an interview with Vanity Fair that he was “directly inspired” by what the magazine calls “the Amanda Knox saga”. The filmmaker “couldn’t help but imagine how it would feel to be in Knox’s shoes”, the article adds, to which Knox responds in her blog: “but that didn’t inspire him to ask me how it felt to be in my shoes”.

But McCarthy explains that Knox’s case was only the starting point for Stillwater. “We decided, ‘Hey, let’s leave the Amanda Knox case behind’”, he says. “But let me take this piece of the story – an American woman studying abroad involved in some kind of sensational crime and she ends up in jail – and fictionalise everything around it.”

However, Knox writes that McCarthy isn’t “leaving the Amanda Knox case behind very well if every single review mentions me”. 

Amanda Knox

Using someone’s lived experience as the basis for a piece of entertainment without their permission is a grey area, but generally one without legal repercussions. As an anonymous producer tells The Telegraph, “themes, topics, subject matter, facts, [and] historical incidents are not copyrightable” and simply changing names, as Stillwater has done, is often enough to protect filmmakers from being sued. 

“If anything”, producer and screenwriter Michael Colleary tells the paper, Knox’s “outrage will likely have the paradoxical effect of raising awareness of the movie” and might even drive “a slight uptick” at the box office. 

Understandably feeling exploited by Stillwater, Knox pitches a new screenplay idea in her blog. “It’s directly inspired by the life of Matt Damon,” she writes. “Except I’m going to fictionalise everything around it, and the Damon-like character in my film is involved in a murder. He didn’t plunge the knife per se, but he’s definitely at fault somehow… It’s loosely based on reality. Shouldn’t bother Matt or Tom, right?”

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