The 1993 murders of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, has been explored time and time again, in documentaries like HBO’s Paradise Lost trilogy and Peter Jackson’s West of Memphis, but pop culture can’t seem to leave the sensational case alone. The question of whether Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. were actually guilty of the savage crimes seems to destined never to be definitively answered, though most films about the case have emphasized how tenuous links between the trio and the murders actually were.
Devil’s Knot, Atom Egoyan’s dramatization of the investigation and subsequent trials, features bankable Hollywood stars like Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, and that star power makes this retelling more likely to appeal to the masses than the documentary coverage. That’s why it’s so unfortunate that Egoyan never manages to do right by his powerful source material. Struggling to make Devil’s Knot a tense legal drama, an emotional exploration of grief and an accurate presentation of the notorious case all at once, Egoyan winds up doing none of those things. Though the director’s intentions were certainly noble, Devil’s Knot arrives as little more than a bland, muddled retread of a story most of us have heard before.
It’s clear that Egoyan, who has ventured into the heart of grief before with Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, wanted to capture the essential tragedy of this case – of Pamela Hobbs (Witherspoon), whose son Stevie was among the victims; of Damien (James Hamrick), Jason (Seth Meriwether) and Jessie (Kris Higgins), the targets of a witch hunt by both police and terrified locals; and not least of all of West Memphis itself, a community turned on its head and blinded by xenophobia and helplessness. Perhaps Devil’s Knot would have been a better film if Egoyan had kept the focus there, on Pamela and the other Memphis residents.
Instead, Egoyan focuses on Ron Lax (Firth), a private investigator with his own theories about the murders. Lax, a bit player in the 1993 trials, is the wrong character to follow, which quickly becomes clear as his generic background is introduced (the guy has a divorce pending and habits a bar – that’s about all the insight we get). Though this clearly was not Egoyan’s intention, putting Lax front and center distances the audience from both the brutality of the murders themselves and the horror of the trials that followed.
Paradise Lost, in three separate feature-length documentaries, extensively covered the West Memphis Three case, pursuing many leads in an attempt to give watchers a sense of just how tangled the case became. There’s no such complexity in Egoyan’s film, and at times it even feels insultingly dumbed down. The ignorance of the police, the crushing mob mentality of West Memphis’s petrified residents, the key pieces of evidence missed in the investigation – none of those aspects of this case trul come through. It’s crucial for films exploring a case as multi-faceted as this to be thorough, and Devil’s Knot is anything but.
Egoyan’s writers, Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, this summer’s Deliver Us from Evil), dwell more on haunting imagery than hard facts, not that surprising given their horror-heavy resumes. At one point, Lax even has a dream in which Stevie’s untied shoelaces turn into cords binding him as he pedals through the woods. Visually, it’s interesting, but is it necessary? At what point does exploring this case turn into exploiting it?
Witherspoon turns in a powerful portrayal of a mother lost entirely in her grief, while Firth ably hits the few notes required of his one-note character, but none of the performances add much to wider understanding of this case. Bruce Greenwood glowers as the biased judge, the three actors playing Damien, Jason and Jessie are believable, and the supporting players are strongly acted by the likes of Mireille Enos, Dane DeHaan, Stephen Moyer, Alessandro Nivola and Amy Ryan. Still, for all their dramatic line readings, I never felt like I was watching anything less than Hollywood stars playing thin caricatures of people those familiar with this case have already met. As a film, Devil’s Knot almost folds in on itself.
The writers toss us scraps of evidence – the mysterious Bojangles man, a bloodstained knife owned by suspicious John Mark Byers (Kevin Durand) – but never weave them smoothly into the main narrative. As a result, Devil’s Knot is far more confusing than it needed to be. Contained in the fact that Devil’s Knot lost me along the way is another question: what’s the point of a Hollywood take that can’t effectively communicate the hard facts of its own story?
If you really want to learn about the travesties of justice perpetrated against the West Memphis Three, just watch Paradise Lost and its two follow-ups. All three films do a fine job of clearly detailing the case and presenting alternate theories about what really happened. With all that documentary footage floating around, Egoyan never finds anything to add, and Devil’s Knot focuses only on territory that has been better explored elsewhere. Though Egoyan’s aims - to drive home the awful miscarriage of justice and pervasive grief present in the West Memphis Three case – are commendable, Devil’s Knot is inescapably lazy, disorganized and melodramatic. Don’t judge this empty book by its photogenic cover.