Tom McCarthy is the director who gave us the Oscar-winning Spotlight, an estimable film. But this is one to forget: a muddled, tonally misjudged, badly acted, uncertainly directed and frankly dubious drama, something that falls into the so-bad-it’s-bad bracket. It’s hamfistedly inspired by the Amanda Knox case, the young American woman who was acquitted having spent four years in an Italian prison after the murder in 2007 of her roommate in Perugia, the British exchange student Meredith Kercher. This film creates a fictional quasi-Knox figure and fatuously convicts this made-up character of a certain muddled wrongdoing that the real Amanda Knox may very well feel she should not be smeared with.
The action is moved to Marseille in France. Abigail Breslin plays Allison Baker, a young woman from Stillwater, Oklahoma, a visiting American student who has been convicted of murdering her lover and is now serving time in prison there. Matt Damon plays Allison’s dad Bill, a construction worker. He comes out to Marseille (presumably on a tourist visa, though he appears to stay indefinitely, doing building-site jobs) . But now he is consumed with the need to solve the case, prove his daughter’s innocence and catch the guy who actually did it.
And while he is there, Bill – an all-American, home-loving guy who prays and says grace but is also supposed to be a “fuckup” – embarks on one of the most unlikely relationships in film history, beginning a romance with a local stage actor and single mom Virginie(Camille Cottin). This character is very important in mediating between Bill and the locals, acting as his interpreter as well as his lover. Her infant daughter absolutely adores Bill. But he and Virginie really don’t look right together; even in their most supposedly intimate moments, Damon and Cottin look as if they have just been introduced at some LA party and have nothing in common.
Damon is in a terrible bind in this film. Of course, he has to be sympathetic – he has to be Matt Damon –and the film won’t permit him to be anything else. But it is also important that he is a bit of a loser, that his daughter doesn’t trust him, as well as to explain away his extraordinarily reckless acts of violence, which the film never really acknowledges. He just seems to be a stolid good ol’ boy who wears a cap at all times and faithfully shows up for prison visits.
At a football match in Marseille, Bill happens to glimpse the young man widely suspected of the murder for which his daughter has been convicted and embarks on an inexplicable act of vigilantism. Whoah! No matter which way this terrible film slices it, this is a very creepy, Lecter-esque thing for Damon to do, and the drama has no way of coming to terms with it.
And yet another bizarre note comes with a scene in which Allison is supposed to have attempted suicide in jail – apparently to assure us that she too is suffering. But this unfortunate event is simply forgotten: there is no scene in which Bill and Allison discuss it. Did it get lost in the edit? It is really odd.
There are some good people in this awful film, whose talents have been wasted. And the only thing to do now is forget all about it.
• Stillwater screened at the Cannes film festival on 8 July. It will be released on 29 July in Australia, on 30 July in the US and on 6 August in the UK.