McGinn & Blackhurst: Amanda Knox (2016)

By this stage, almost everyone knows the story of Amanda Knox, the young American woman who was convicted of the murder of her roommate Meredith Kerchner, while the two of them were studying abroad in Perugia. So notorious did the case, and Knox’s conviction, become, that a film about it could never hope to capture the sense of discovery attached to less publicized crimes, or to crimes that were only publicized in a particular region or country. The very opposite of a cold case, Knox’s trial was a global media event, as the media and the Perugian police converged on a narrative in which her guilt was largely determined by a series of supposedly bizarre behavior quirks that she demonstrated during the discovery of Kerchner’s body, and during her subsequent interrogation. Whereas most recent true crime media fetishizes cases that were confined to a particular region, and can be used to draw out the particular contours of that region, Knox’s case became so global that directors Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn don’t spend all that much time establishing the atmosphere of Perugia at the time Knox was there, or even recreating the layout and ambience of the house where Kerchner’s rape and murder occurred. Instead, the focus is more on outlining a true crime vision that manages to disentangle itself from both the investigative and sensational impulses of the media and police, in order to allow Knox to speak on her own terms and in her own voice, whatever that might involve ten years later.

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In that sense, Amanda Knox forms part of a subgenre of true crime about women who don’t respond in the right way to crime. Often, these “wrong” resonses displace the main crime, or are seen as directly responsible for it, as in the case of the Lindy Chamberlain trial in the 1980s. During the opening scene, Knox makes it clear that there are only two ways to look at her response to the murder – “either I’m a psychopath in sheep’s clothing, or I am you” – setting the scene for an opening act in which she largely drives the shape and structure of the film, thanks to a sustained first person narration that traces her life up to her arrival in Perugia, where she met roommate Kerchner and Raffaelle Sollecito, who she had been seeing for five days when the murder occurred. Throughout these early scenes, it’s clear that Blackhurst and McGinn believe that Knox is innocent, despite the occasional gestures of scepticism, which tend to be embedded in the style of the film rather than directly articulated in any way. In one quite striking citation, for example, they choose to introduce Perugia with the song “Tu Vuo’ Fa l’Americano,” the song that is also used to introduce Italy to Tom Ripley, via Dickie Greenleaf, in The Talented Mr. Ripley. There, it marks the start of Ripley’s insinuation of himself into the lives of his friends-turned-victims, and it’s hard not to feel that the directors of Amanda Knox occasionally wonder whether a Ripley-like performance might be taking place here as well, even as they are openly aligned with Knox.

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For the most part, however, these reservations only occur on that more submerged plane, as the first part of the film aims to reinvest Knox with her voice, and frame her as the “warrior-princess” that she always believed herself to be as a child. Even the use of old family footage emphasises Knox’s voice, and its difference from the sex-crazed criminal the tabloid media created, with the result that the tone is surprisingly jaunty and upbeat when the action shifts to Perugia. Reframing the study trip as she originally envisaged it would be, the directors try to imagine the time in Perugia she would have had if the murder had happened, and she had never been convicted and imprisoned for it. This produces a cutesy, romantic and adolescent tone, as in her account of her first meeting with Sollecito, and her excitement at finding herself alone and independent in an exotic European city. Much of these early scenes therefore play as a love story, as both Knox and the directors emphasise that her burgeoning relationship with Sollecito was a courtship, a romance and a love affair, rather than part of a sex cult, or invested in fetishism or sexual experimentation in any way.

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Yet the romance of Perugia, and the romance with Sollecito, are never quite dramatized too much either. Instead, the directors make it clear that, if Knox hadn’t been in the wrong place at the wrong time, this would probably have not even been a particularly transformative period, but just the rite of passage that most American teenagers go through at one point or another. Undercutting the romance is a sense of drabness, blandness, and banality, as if the directors were aware that the best possible riposte they could make to the media obsession with “Foxy Knoxy” was that she was just a bit normcore, no more or less experimental or deviant than any other white American adolescent of her age. That banality is especially powerful when it comes to the footage of Knox and Sollecito kissing outside her apartment on the morning when Kerchner’s body was discovered. While this was considered one of the most salacious indications of her guilt at the time, in retrospect it is surprisingly underwhelming. Not only do Knox and Sollecito only kiss on the mouth, rather than French kiss, but it is clearly a kiss of anxiety, shock and consolation, as they both stop, mid-kiss, and turn in anxiety towards the house, where the police are still investigating. At an even more basic level, it is clear that the reason they were kissing outside was that Knox’s home was now a crime scene, and she had been forced outside, as well as forced to fall back upon Sollecito as her only source of comfort and solace at such a shocking juncture.

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Reclaiming that piece of footage is the single most powerful gesture of Amanda Knox, which cycles back so many times to the mournful gazes of Knox and Sollecito that their kiss is barely noticeable by the end. In outling her time in Perugia, the directors also embed the footage within a fairly banal observation, namely that Knox had only known Kerchner for a couple of weeks, and had only been seeing Sollecito for five days. While the tabloid media saw this as an indication of her calloweness (to Kerchner) and the extravagance of her sexual appetities (for Sollecito), Blackhurst and McGinn suggest, more blandly, that it is quite hard to muster up demonstrative grief when you hardly know the person who has been murdered, and the only shoulder you have to cry on is someone you have just met. Later, when her family are present, Knox will feel safe expressing her emotions more directly, but in the immediate aftermath it is clear that she is experiencing shock, rather than grief, not least because the victim could easily have been her. Part of what makes Knox so powerful as an interview subject is the way in which she acknowledges this absence of grief, as well as the limitations of her emotional investment in Kerchner, who, after all, she had only known for a few weeks. This inability to demonstratively grieve for someone she barely knew was what made her so suspicious to the investigators and press, but in Blackhurst and McGinn’s hands it seems considerably more banal, bland and trustworthy. If anything, they suggest, you’d have to suspect her more if she had been suddenly distraught.

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Rather than sympathizing with this shock – the shock of realising the she could also be a victim of random misogyny – the investigators and media made themselves complicit in it by questioning the normalcy, the femininity and the innocence of Knox’s responses. That places Amanda Knox – and Amanda Knox – in an unusual position, since the investigative rhetoric so critical to true crime media has already been absorbed by the police and tabloid response here. At a structural level, it also means that there is no investigative authority in the film, no figure of the kind who typically anchors the audience’s investigative impulse in recent true crime media. Instead, the directors provide a pair of compromised investigators, or even parodic investigators, in the form of Giuliano Mignini, the prosecutor who handled the case, and Nick Pisa, the journalist who covered it for the Daily Mail. On the one hand, Mignini plays like a satire of detective work, making absurd generalisations about men and women, invoking Sherlock Holmes as his main inspiration, and indulging in the most bizarre armchair psychologizing imaginable. At one point, he interprets Knox’s shock and her exhaustion after days of police coercion as her “hearing Meredith’s scream,” while his imperfect command of English leads him to misinterpret a mobile message as drastically as his team misinterpreted the footage of Knox and Sollecito outside her apartment. On the other hand, Pisa is presented as an objective voice, a voice outside the investigation, but in a parodic and self-defeating way, as it becomes clear that he was instrumental in precisely the trial by media, and the travesty of investigative procedure, he is supposedly critiquing.

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While there may be testimony from different parties, then, Amanda Knox never quite gels into an investigative narrative. Nor do Mignani and Pisa’s presence permit any consistent pathos or gravitas, as if the investigative approach were so absorbed by tabloid procedure that the film has to adopt a more playful, quizzical, circuitous tone to tell the story properly. Among other things, that means that cutesiness of the opening act intrudes at odd moments, often during the most serious parts of the case, as when Knox recalls that she and Sollecito were ready Harry Potter in German on the night that the crime occurred. So drastically was justice deferred, the directors seem to suggest, and so salaciously was true crime media co-opted against Knox, that the only way to tell her story is through true crime parody, and as a parody of both investigative procedure and proper reportage. For that reason, Amanda Knox is closer to the style and address of American Vandal than any other recent true crime release, to the point where you could argue that American Vandal is simply a slightly more formalized and pointed version of the semi-comic tone evident here.

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That also means that Amanda Knox is more indebted to Errol Morris than just about any other recent true crime text. With their eccentric asides, talking heads interviews and lavish recreations of key moments, Blackhurst and McGinn often reach back to The Thin Blue Line in order to craft the visual syntax of their film, despite nods in the direction of the Netflix house style as well. Even the trademark use of drone shots, however, tends to be accompanied by voiceovers that tip the film back in the direction of the talking heads format, just as the archival footage takes the edge off the high-definition Netflix look as well. While The Thin Blue Line was critical for proving what true crime media could do, Blackhurst and McGinn instead reclaim it as the moment just before it was known what true crime media could so. Certainly, Morris’ film made a huge difference to the Randall Dale Adams case, but Morris couldn’t have known the extent of that difference at the time, as much as he might have hoped for it. In a period when every true crime series aspires to be an investigative platform that outdoes regular investigative platforms, Blackhurst and McGinn therefore reach back to Morris’ defining work in order to deal with a case whose ability to generate further investigative platforms seems much more in question, if only because of how thoroughly the investigative process and rhetoric was itself perverted by it.

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One of the key ways that Blackhurst and McGinn demonstrate that debt to Morris is through their taste for the absurd narrative generated in and around procedure. While the media beatup of Knox’s case is well known, the documentary offers a new insight into the Fellini-esque stories that prosecutor Mignani developed to explain her behavior, stories that make even the tabloid response look bizarre by comparison. In particular, I was reminded of Fellini’s late works, which occurred after sexual liberation, and in which the mere possibility that women might no longer be impressed by his grotesque fantasies produced one image of female monstrosity and animality after another. Something of that fear of women percolates into Knox’s case too, as the most preposterous generalisations are taken as forensic truths, and anything other than the crudest female archetypes are seen as “completely inexplicable, totally irrational.” Interestingly, when Knox is acquitted, Italian men seem especially affronted by her, clamouring for her blood from outside the Perugian courthouse. One of the most powerful aspects of the film is to trace the path of this misogyny, from Italian gender ideals, to the power of the British tabloid media, to American conservatism, in what was finally a global misogyny event as much as a global crime event.

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It’s not hard to see, then, why Amanda Knox received a lukewarm response from true crime fans and pundits, for this is neither a systematic take on the evidence nor a systematic account of the media beatup, just as it does nothing especially concrete to either advance the case against Knox or exonerate her. It’s probably best described as a character study of Knox, but even then the directors are reluctant to intrude too much into her personal life for fear of becoming complicit with the tabloid beatup they are critiquing. Yet the film never quite expels the tabloid impulse either, as evinced in how often it returns to the spectacle of Kerchner’s body and blood, while the few things that speak against Knox are oddly impotent, as if the investigative lens has been removed from the directors’ grasp by the tabloid response. Instead, Amanda Knox evokes how the lexicon of true crime itself was both co-opted and exhausted by the media event that arose around Kerchner’s trial, until the only way for the directors to properly account for it is through something very close to true crime parody. And it is in that parodic mode that the true travesty of the case comes through; namely that Rudy Guede, the prime suspect, was given a reduced sentence and provided with his first period of extended release just as the documentary was going to air.

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If Amanda Knox is sceptical of the investigative mode, it is ultimately due to the way in which Guede was handled by the investigation. Despite the fact that Guede had been to the house, despite the fact that he had a history of burglary, and despite the fact that his DNA was all over the crime scene, the prosecutors instead chose to pursue a young woman who didn’t respond in the right way to the crime. Even if, as they suggested, Guede had been in league with Knox and Sollecito, his role in the crime is downgraded right from the start, while nobody ever questions his apparent indifference to a murder that took place at a scene where his DNA was liberally scattered. Even though it was established that he took part in the crime in some way, he was never greeted with the same moral outrage, while the prosecutors appear to have gone to considerable lengths to craft a narrative that avoided the banality of the case, and the most obvious solution – that Guede had committed the crime alone. Sometimes the truth of true crime is banal, and that seems to be the case here, with the sensational afterlife of the murder labelling Knox as “bestial and sex-obsessed and unnatural” long after she had returned to Seattle, even as Guede was quietly serving a reduced sentence in a Perugian jail. The final note of Amanda Knox is Guede being granted day release, and his more general release from the kinds of scrutiny that still haunt Knox – a release, the directors suggest, that was facilitated by the very true crime media they try, so doggedly and originally, to define their own documentary against.

About Billy Stevenson (936 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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