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Breaching Fort “Knox”: an engaging exercise in true-crime

Grant Pearsall

Staff Writer

This documentary tries to figure out what happened that fateful night in Italy. (Photo courtesy of vanityfair.com)
This documentary tries to figure out what happened that fateful night in Italy. (Photo courtesy of vanityfair.com)

Netflix’s ripped-from-the-headlines documentary,“Amanda Knox,” proves that in the digital age, criminality, the media and public discourse are hopelessly intertwined. The film begs the question– does the retelling of a case influenced by sensational journalism offer fresh insight, or simply render yet another entertaining version of the truth? In the reality of true-crime, subjectivity remains elusive.

The details of the case in question are as such– in 2007, Seattleite Amanda Knox leaves to study abroad in Perugia, Italy. She and her boyfriend, native Italian Raffaele Sollecito, are accused of violently murdering Meredith Kercher, Knox’s roommate. The investigation moves unusually rapidly, targeting Knox and Sollecito as co-conspirators in this– a violent crime portrayed in the tabloids as a gruesome, ritualistic sex act with deadly results. Reporter Nick Pisa of the U.K’s The Daily Mail is apt to capitalize on the torrid aspects of the story, crafting a narrative where Knox and Sollecito are sexual deviants with a murderous, appetite. Without revealing the details of a protracted legal battle that has only concluded in 2015, the entire case is fraught with police impropriety, media bias and judicial negligence.

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“There are those who believe in my innocence and those who believe in my guilt…,” Amanda Knox cooly orates into the camera, “Either I’m a psychopath in sheep’s clothing, or I’m you.”

Directors Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn’s film comes as the latest in the lineage of modern documentaries that have benefited from our always-on, perpetually recorded digital culture of today. Culled from a dearth of sources including home videos of Knox, crime scene footage, and media coverage, Blackhurst and McGinn create a slickly packaged narrative scored with moody classical strings and edited with much aplomb. McGinn’s directorial craft-work in the wildly-affecting Netflix exclusive series “Chef’s Table” (2015) has easily been ported to the crime-docu-genre. Here, he exchanges the pornographic tableaus of sumptuously prepared foods for close-ups on human gore and haunted, gloomy faces.

Recent documentaries like “Amy” (2015), are constructed entirely of found footage to great effect. “Amanda Knox,” eschews this level of dynamism, employing traditional documentary tropes like talking-heads interviews, voice-overs and original interstitial footage. While the interviewees can be show-stealing in their poignancy (I.E- Knox pondering the elusive nature of the sociopath) they often read as contrived– perhaps benefiting from some creative prompting on behalf of the interviewers. Pisa, in particular, is a font of hyperbolic statements that seem uncomfortably premeditated. On the topic of what it feels like to break information during such a popular case he very excitedly remarks, “It’s like having great sex or something.”

Similarly, some of the interstitial footage used as connective tissue between the real, found footage and that of the interviewees reads as over-the-top; characters are suddenly in picturesque locales, their harrowed expressions purposefully contrasted with unusually beautiful vistas. Casting doubt on the character of those already convicted in a court of law is fully within the prerogative of any documentarian. But, in “Amanda Knox,” the technique feels disingenuous– this is in light of a case that seems to have turned on the idea that the media’s portrayal of Knox as a deadly sexual temptress enforced the public (and judicial) opinion of their guilt.

There are massively interesting aspects of Knox’s case that Blackhurst and McGinn’s film curiously does not have time for. There is the troubling matter of an unflushed toilet at the scene of the crime that seriously questions the motive of the killer, but is left entirely unaddressed. Meanwhile, another participant (or perpetrator) in the crime is tried and found guilty with bare-minimum explication. Or, perhaps most glaring of all, is the entirely unexplored question of why the authorities and public of Perugia are hell-bent on convicting Knox when her alleged motive as presented is wafer-thin. The answers assuredly lie in a complicated discussion of Catholic doctrine, entrenched cultural misogyny, Italian attitudes towards Americans and other sociological matters. If anything, “Amanda Knox” could have taken note from “Making of a Murderer” (2015), Netflix’s sprawling true-crime documentary– a series that granted space for its filmmakers to both posit, and answer, similar lines of inquiry in satisfying (albeit terrifying) detail.

“Amanda Knox” is a documentary film that straddles the fine line between factual revelation and convenient storytelling. Buying into the extremely-plausible version truth that Blackhurst and McGinn are selling is entirely at the discretion of the recipient, but the telling of it remains entertaining with, or without, having made the sale.

Grade [B-]

Running time: 92 Minutes
Rated: TV-MA
Now showing on Netflix Streaming