“DEVIL’S KNOT” (DVD Review)
The case of the West Memphis Three, the trio of Arkansas boys falsely accused and convicted of the murder of three little boys over 20 years ago, has been discussed, debated and chronicled in exhaustive detail in four masterful documentaries. Though free men now (sort of), theirs is a true tragedy and one of the most revolting miscarriages of justice in American history.
So why on earth would a filmmaker as decorated as Canadian art house cause célèbre Atom Egoyan opt to re-tell the story as a narrative drama, especially a mere two years since the three – Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. – were released? With their lives already ensconced in the public domain, why rehash their troubles for staged entertainment?
Egoyan’s DEVIL’S KNOT (based on the book by Mara Leveritt) is indeed the story of the arrest and trial of the West Memphis Three. In it, America’s former sweetheart Reese Witherspoon (a good comedic actress and a buoyant presence in such easily accessible films as WALK THE LINE) plays Pam Hobbs, devastated mother to Stevie Branch, one of the three boys who were found bound and murdered, their tiny, mutilated bodies submerged in a wooded creek in Robin Hood Hills.
With mothers grieving and fathers calling for justice, the pressured West Memphis PD cornered mentally handicapped youth Misskelley Jr based on the dubious claims of a child. After a full day of questioning, they milked a confession out of him that also implicated Echols and Baldwin, two kids who dressed in black, read FANGORIA and listened to heavy metal. A witch hunt ensued, here observed through the eyes of investigator for the defense Ron Lax (Colin Firth). As the trial drags to its sad conclusion, Hobbs observes from the fringes and finds herself doubting the boys’ guilt. Her husband Terry Hobbs however (Alessandro Nivola), is not looking so good…
Though the production was approved by Baldwin and Misskelley Jr. (Echols declined involvement, reportedly putting him at odds with the former) DEVIL’S KNOT is mostly perfunctory. It’s a regurgitation of scenes from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s superlative film PARADISE LOST, the picture that made the world aware of the WM3 in the first place and kick-started the campaign to have them liberated. Supporting actors are cast for their physical resemblances to the real players and little effort is made to flesh out personalities outside of the sound bites we’ve seen in the PARADISE LOST films (three in total were produced, charting the entire double decade fiasco) and the recent Peter Jackson-produced WEST OF MEMPHIS.
The exceptions of course are Witherspoon and Firth, the former giving her all to find the soul of a woman whose primal mourning combined with an equally base anger is at odds with her humanity and eventual need to seek the truth. She’s good, taking an impression of Hobbs and making it her own. Which is why it’s infuriating when Egoyan betrays her efforts, forcing her to mimic a famous news clip of the jittery, obviously over-medicated Hobbs giggling, twitching and pulling at her hair. It’s a cheap move and it just doesn’t work.
Firth’s Lax is ostensibly the hero of the piece. He’s very good with the material he’s given, but Egoyan’s decision to build this character meticulously only to then kick him into the role of tsk-tsking Greek chorus in the second half is lazy. Thank goodness for Egoyan’s regular composer Mychael Danna’s gorgeous, fragile and aching score. It’s one element of the film that never sinks into simple minded telefilm territory, something that by and large DEVIL’S KNOT unfortunately does.
Remember Gus Van Sant’s ELEPHANT? There was a film that took a real life tragedy – the Columbine shootings – and built a memorable work of art around its central themes. One wonders what sort of film DEVIL’S KNOT would have been, had Egoyan opted to explore the emotions and ideas surrounding the case of the West Memphis Three, following either Lax or Hobbs exclusively to add unique insight into the tragedy. He didn’t, and all we’re left with is an undercooked, overstuffed docudrama.
DEVIL’S KNOT is now out on DVD. Extras include a making-of documentary.