This current trend of true crime, both in fictional and documentary form, shows no signs in letting up in Netflix’s latest outstanding film, Amanda Knox. Of all the massively popular examples of this genre, most notably the podcast Serial and Netflix’s series Making a Murderer, this movie is the most aware of its place within this cultural landscape, and therefore takes on a perspective that is as much about the murder case itself as it is about the media circus that surrounded it, calling into question the audience that hungers for sensational stories as enablers of the types of injustice that occurred here.
We’re introduced to the subject, Amanda Knox herself, right away through narration that seems scripted (it might not be for all I know), in which she states plainly what has become the tagline for Netflix’s promotional campaign: “Either I’m a psychopath in sheep’s clothing, or I’m you.” The film doesn’t really hide whose side it’s on, and the outcome of the case’s long trial and appeal process is public knowledge, so there’s not as much of a question of “did she do it” the way there is with someone like Adnan Syed (if you’re like me and block out news stories like this, it still unfolds in a way that keeps you guessing, which is nice. Like a long overdue reward for not watching CNN).
The details at the center of the story are that Meredith Kercher was a visiting British student killed in Perugia, Italy in 2007, and Amanda Knox, who was her roommate at the time, was charged and convicted of the murder along with her then-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito. The news that a young American woman was accused of murdering a young British woman in Italy is apparently a story that tabloid media thrives on, and thus the case became an international phenomenon.
Providing perspective on the story in portrait-style talking head segments are three other key figures involved at the time: Sollecito himself, Nick Pisa, a reporter who became famous for sensational headlines and publishing Knox’s prison diary, and Giuliano Mignini, the local prosecutor who investigated the case. The candidness with which all four of these interviewees speak is remarkable. They’re all fascinating characters to observe, and one of the joys of this movie is seeing them reveal themselves as it goes along. The highlight of all of it has to be Pisa’s beautiful, detailed description of what the job of a good, professional journalist entails, spoken with absolute bafflement at the fact that people expected him to live up to these standards. It’s reminiscent of Errol Morris’ achievement in getting Donald Rumsfeld to expose himself and all his hypocrisies in The Unknown Known.
In fact, there’s a lot of Morris in this movie’s style, from the Philip Glass-like score that draws us into a trance-like state of bewilderment and fascination, to the direct address style of the talking heads, who are framed and lit like moving portraits, every detail of their faces so clear that any hint of deceptiveness is as plain as their noses. The retrospective nature of it has a Thin Blue Line feel, but is also an important facet of what it’s trying to depict in regards to the immediacy of news cycles and desperate need for media to seek out whatever salacious details they can rope viewers in with. There’s no doubt that Morris has spawned a generation of documentarians emulating his style of filmmaking, but this is probably the strongest imitation there has been to this point.
If it ended with imitation it would be a noble effort, but the movie takes this demonstrably gripping mode and infuses it with beautifully devastating critiques of the Italian justice system specifically but also justice systems in general, given the current genre it recognizes it belongs to. It shows that this type of injustice doesn’t only happen in America, although there is a certain Americanness to the way the law can be influenced by cultural reactions. To the Italian system’s credit, they did rule against what seemed to be the wishes of the Italian populace, of which the film interestingly decides to include footage. The prosecutor is given enough metaphorical rope to hang himself when he proclaims his certainty of Knox’s guilt because he believes he can see it in her eyes. Fortunately, that’s not enough to maintain a guilty verdict in the Italian courts.
The retrospective aspect of the documentary is all a part of its clear mandate of seeking truth rather than views or clicks. Amanda Knox’s story is no longer a timely one, but the distance that we have from it is what allows for a deeper look, and one that has implications on today’s media landscape, whether it’s in the realm of sensational crime reporting or presidential campaign coverage. For sheer craftsmanship and watchability alone, Amanda Knox is a must-see offering on Netflix; for its exposure of the workings of justice systems and media culture, it’s an essential piece of work worth sharing and discussing.
Netflix adds another outstanding documentary to their lineup with Amanda Knox, a true crime dive that would make Errol Morris proud.