[9 May 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There are four definitive movies about the West Memphis Three. The Devil’s Knot is not one of them. Not by a long shot. Between Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s brilliant trilogy - Paradise Lost: The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory - and the Peter Jackson produced West of Memphis, there is no need for further discussion of this incendiary criminal case. It’s safe to say that the miscarriage of justice that occurred in the State of Arkansas, a collaboration between police prejudice, prosecutorial malfeasance, and small town fear mongering resulted in three young men (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley) serving more than 18 years in prison for crimes they did not commit, the killer of three innocent boys going un-captured, and the families of both the accused and the murdered left wondering what went wrong.
Atom Egoyan’s fictional faux pax, The Devil’s Knot, won’t resolve any of those still lingering feelings. It offers no new insights, little that we don’t already know about the case, and tries to “humanize” things by focusing on the mother of victim Stevie Branch, Pamela Hobbs (played by Reese Witherspoon) and on Ron Lax (Colin Firth), a private investigator hired by the Defense to try and make sense of what was happening in West Memphis. The flaw in this approach is that the story really isn’t about the dead children (sorry - it has to be said) or the town’s inherent bigotry. The sadness with such a loss is beyond obvious and the reasons behind the social stigmas are almost laughable in their TV talk show explanations. No, the real reason to revisit this mess is to see how three outsiders were targeted by a community desperate for answers and how said desire fueled a terrifying witch hunt.
For their part, the actors playing Echols, Badlwin, and Misskelley (James Hamrick, Seth Meriwether, and Kristopher Higgins, respectively) are good, but are given short shrift in the storyline. Instead, they are frequently offered up with an aura of menace, confusing an unknowing audience member into believing they are guilty when all that’s really happening is a case of directorial manipulation. Others, including Bruce Greenwood as the original sitting judge and Elias Koteas as a parole officer go for the full bore rube mode and miss by a country mile. Had there not been a massive media outpouring over this situation, had there not been long form film devoted to the minutia and details of the crimes and punishment, The Devil’s Knot might work. It would be seen as the foundation of some future outrage, not an afterthought to a thoroughly dissected and determined conclusion.
It’s a problem that faces many movie genres, from the true crime/life drama to the basic biopic. The old saying suggests familiarity breeding contempt, which would, in turn, highlight what’s wrong here. Our indignation over what happens to the young boys is not built on what Egoyan shows us, but what we know about the crime. Similarly, our confusion over the tactics comes straight from the first Paradise Lost, not the way the film approaches things. By ending the narrative in 1994, The Devil’s Knot seems even more exploitative, using the gruesome details of the deaths to avoid dealing with the legal issues that would drag out for more than a decade. On the other hand, considering the scope of everything involved, perhaps Egoyan knew when to get out. Sadly, he also did so to the detriment of his take on the material.
Perhaps it’s time for a bit of true confessions. I have known members of the activist group who work diligently to get the West Memphis Three released from prison. My friend(s) were fervent in their dedication and updated me often on what was going on. Naturally, I took each twist and turn with great interest, but when the Alford Plea was entered and Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley walked, I didn’t feel the same sense of relief that others did. I understood the pain that everyone was in. I felt for the accused, realized that this brought closure to nothing, and contemplated what would happen to the case now that, at least in the mind of the men in power, everything was ‘settled.’
There’s is nothing as thoughtful as this in The Devil’s Knot. Sure, Egoyan can sometimes works a bit of movie magic here and there, making us forget that we are experiencing something that pales in comparison to the actual truth, but for the most part, this movie feels superfluous and ancillary. It can best be described as a hanger on at a party that everyone has long since abandoned and yet it believes it just discovered. For some in the audience, this analogy will also feel valid. They don’t know much about the West Memphis Three (just the occasional media outbursts that came along whenever something “newsworthy” happened), probably have no Paradise Lost frame of reference, and for the most part, don’t have a strong opinion on the case one way or another. For them, this film may seem fresh. For those who know, it’s stale.
Perhaps the biggest element missing from The Devil’s Knot, however, is a sense of justice. With each documentary, you could feel the need to speak out and the desire to right wrongs. Even in showing evidence that was questionable or condemning, those films asked you to apply common sense and come to your own thoughtful conclusion. Had he really tried to show how an entire town could fall under the spell of false Satanism, had he ginned up the more sensational aspects of the story instead of going low, slow, and insular, Egoyan may have had something complementary to say. Instead, The Devil’s Knot feels like too late way too late, illustrating aspects of the case that no longer matter. We may never know who killed those three boys in a rural Arkansas ravine. The Devil’s Knot doesn’t add to the discussion. Instead, it distracts from it.