Canadian arthouse darling Atom Egoyan returns to form with this rote, but effective retelling of the story of the West Memphis Three.
I feel like I am pretty intimately familiar with the case of the West Memphis Three, thanks to my exposure to Joe Berliner’s 1996 documentary film Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (and its sequels from 2000 and 2011). While there is still a swirling morass of controversy surrounding the case, here are the details we know: Stevie Branch, James Byers, and Michael Moore, all about 8, were murdered in Tennessee on May 5th, 1993. They were hogtied, mutilated, and dumped in a muddy creek. The most famous suspects in the case were a trio of teenagers – Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelly – who were, according to most people, merely suspected because of their fandom of heavy metal music, their tendency to wear black, and their interest in Wicca and other occult matters. The teens were convicted and stayed in prison for 18 years before finally being released after years of appeals. They were not exonerated, and are still convicted felons. No one is really sure who committed the murders.
In Paradise Lost, one of the boy’s stepfathers, John Mark Byers, all but confesses to the crime on camera, and even gives a bloody knife to the filmmakers as a gift. He was never questioned. It also doesn’t help that several other people, including Misskelly, confessed to the crime. Much has been written about this case, and it’s one of the more public murder cases of the decade.
Atom Egoyan’s new film Devil’s Knot, based on the 2002 book by Mara Leveritt, is a calm, procedural recounting of this case. It may be hard to be shocked by the details, as I already knew them, but I can at least appreciate Egoyan’s approach. Egoyan is a filmmaker who finely focuses on how crime and iniquity can leave ripples throughout a family and a community; his excellent 1997 film The Sweet Hereafter is tonally similar. Even his underseen Ararat details the lasting historical impact of the Armenian genocide on modern people. Devil’s Knot applies that same ethos to down-home small town America. The results are impressive enough, although they lack a lot of the wet, messy emotional baggage that the real-life case must have definitely been subjected to.
Egoyan’s approach is clinical. Educational. Straightforward. He makes no gossip and offers no interpretations. He allows his actors to embody the case rather than distinct roles. And while this may seem distant and disappointing to many viewers, I cannot think of any other approach. Should he stage his film to find the real murderers? Definitely not. He’s not the kind of stylist to make an over-reaching mood piece of a time and place the same way David Fincher did with his excellent Zodiac.
The sometime narrator of Devil’s Knot is investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth), an enterprising PI who wants to clear the names of the teen suspects because he simply does not believe in the death penalty. The emotional core of the film belongs to Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), one of the victims’ mothers. Excellent character actor Kevin Durand plays John Mark Byers. James Hamrick plays Damien Echols. Other familiar faces appear as well, including Alessandro Nivola, Mireille Enos, Elias Koteas, Dane DeHaan, and Bruce Greenwood.
You would think that a fictionalized movie of this case would hover around the suspicious personal lives of the suspects; are Metallica fans who are into Alistair Crowley really murderers as well? This was certainly the central theme of the previous documentary films. Egoyan mixes that one detail into a confusing cauldron of guilt, false confessions, and all the other impediments involved in this case to create a simple portrait of justice trying to be done, and the doubts that overwhelmed any certainty. It’s a fascinating, frustrating film.