Framed against a grey backdrop, facing the camera directly, the interviewees in the true-crime documentary “Amanda Knox” — which include the subject herself — could be sitting for portraits at Sears. Some, oddly enough, even manage the occasional photo-friendly smile. They just come at different times in their personal narratives.
For Knox, it’s when she describes being newly in love in Italy; in other words, life before being painted as a bloodthirsty, sexually deviant American college student who collaborated with her Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito in the murder her British roommate Meredith Kercher in 2007. For tabloid journalist Nick Pisa, his smile represents life after helping paint Knox as said orgiastic murderer, front page bylines goosing his career to prideful heights.
Therein lies the burning strength of this substantive, even-handed and eye-opening film from Rod Blackhurst (“Here Alone”) and Brian McGinn (“Chef’s Table”), premiering in theaters and on Netflix September 30: for a crime to grab headlines around the world — as the grisly, opaque, and bizarre story of Knox’s ordeal did — parts have to be played and, in some cases, those roles must be vigorously sold.
Knox herself calmly tells us the rundown of her situation at the beginning of the film; you either believe she’s a psychopath, or you see her as the persecuted innocent who could easily be any of us given the circumstances. It’s an undeniably chilling prospect either way, and Blackhurst and McGinn do a vise-tightening job with the unpacking the facts as we now know them, as we never knew them (including rarely seen court documents and police video), and as they were originally distorted beyond all reason.
It all amounts to a categorically fair hearing for someone who was neither the perfect suspect (due to a shoddy investigation and to physical evidence that mostly pointed to someone else) nor the ideally presented victim of wrongful prosecution (thanks to a chilly vibe post-arrest that unfairly branded Knox). The mere fact that Italy’s justice system convicted her twice, and exonerated her twice, says wonders about the murk of perception and facts at work, and “Amanda Knox” delivers its own justice by covering all the complexities of its ever-fascinating true crime tale.
The personality throughline here is fraught with cause and effect — how a rosy-cheeked Seattle teenager who only wanted to spend time with her shy Italian beau was flayed in public for being a sexual person, and how the vilified figure referred to as “Foxy Knoxy” in lurid coverage of the murder became the lonely-looking, exonerated-but-hardened woman captured by the filmmakers back home.
The mining of Knox’s MySpace page (where “Foxy Knoxy” came from) became an early instance of a social media footprint infecting the narrative of a case. It’s persuasively juxtaposed with how the actual evidence was used and abused in the buildup toward presenting Knox as everything short of a supernatural she-beast.
If you’re in the “she’s innocent” camp (and it’s safe to say the filmmakers lean that way), the story has two antagonists — prosecutor Giuliano Mignini and reporter Pisa, of Britain’s Daily Mail — and it’s to the film’s benefit that they’re onscreen giving their side of things. One of the movie’s strengths is how its original interviews are small in number yet stick to the central players, which keeps the focus from drifting off into talking-head land.
Mignini offers up a handful of deductive head-scratchers, like his on-the-spot judgment that a murder victim covered with a sheet indicated a female perpetrator. His poetic confidence in his psychological acuity (“we are all between good and evil”) suggests he finds a theory first, then ignores the facts that don’t support it.
Pisa, meanwhile, is a real piece of work, a breezy opportunist who brags about his cozy relationship with the prosecution, yet gets defensive about how little time there was to scrutinize every bizarre theory they gave the media before he needed to beat the competition with a new headline. At times he sounds more like his readership — entertained by the theories, shocked at the twists and turns — than the steward who’s supposed to vet this stuff for actual information.
Though there’s no new interview with the Kercher family, it’s heartbreaking to see footage of Meredith’s mother telling a reporter she hasn’t received any closure from it all. Meanwhile, the beautifully shot vistas of hilltop Perugia in “Amanda Knox” are in some ways an apt visual metaphor for the other trajectory of this case: the lure of a picturesque, ancient country leading to the treatment of a young woman that can only be described as medieval.