Devil’s Knot (2014)
In 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas, three eight-year-old boys went out late one night to ride their bikes. They were never seen alive again. The ensuing media circus that erupted lead to the conviction of three teenagers (The West Memphis Three) who many believed were innocent of these heinous crimes. Stop me if you’ve heard this story before. It was the basis of three stirring, powerful, galvanizing documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, two men credited with saving the West Memphis Three. Now after their release from prison, here comes Devil’s Knot, the first fictional film about the notorious case, Hollywood’s first crack at well-tread material. Is there anything new to be found?
Director Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter, Chloe) and his screenwriters do a credible job of distilling the complicated case against the West Memphis Three to its basics, relying on a modulated tone that shies away from the sensationalism that dominated the case back in 1993. With the benefit of time and hindsight, it’s easy for the movie to point out the erroneous thinking of the prosecution, the jump to conclusions, and the Satanic panic engulfing the community of Arkansas. We’re told by a police officer that they knew this “Satanic cult stuff” would hit town; they’ve just been waiting for the day. To its credit, the movie does a fine job of calmly and objectively pointing out the deficiencies in the police and prosecution’s case against the West Memphis Three. We’re told that from the twelve hours of interrogation with Jessie Misskelley, only 40-some minutes was recorded. The obvious mistakes in his confession, as well as the police coaching and coaxing him to their desired response, is made readily apparent. There’s “witness” Vicki Hutchernson (Mireille Enos of the oft-canceled The Killing) who says she say chief suspect Damien in a Satanic ritual, but the film cuts back from the imaginary to Vicki watching a movie on TV, the real source of her descriptive flourishes. Egoyan’s direction has a calm, objective overview that is reverent and respectful of the dead and the bereaved. It’s rarely boring and the facts of this case are such that any retelling would be somewhat compelling.
So that brings me to the ultimate question: why even make a fictional movie about this subject? Four lengthy documentaries have covered the intricacies of the legal story, the breakdown in justice, and the personal toll on all sides of the crime. The only thing a fictional movie provides is: 1) the fun/distracting game of seeing relatively famous actors play the real-life people we’ve previously seen, and, 2) as an option for people who hate documentaries. If you’re one of those people who dislikes documentaries and doesn’t view them as “real movies,” then Devil’s Knot is for you, you dismissive filmgoer. Otherwise, literally everything was handled better in the Paradise Lost films. With the West Memphis Three thankfully out of prison, the omnipresent sense of urgency from the documentaries is now absent, replaced with a Monday morning quarterback sensibility pointing out all the obvious bias, judicial hypocrisy, and flaws of the case. And as anyone who has plowed through the powerful and addicting documentaries knows, there are plenty of flaws to point out for harsh scrutiny and incredulity. Movies have a long history of showing us an example of judicial injustice, and this is a prime example. However, Egoyan has put the emphasis of his movie on two outsiders rather than people in the center of this case. The West Memphis Three themselves are barely supporting actors in their own movie. I suppose the filmmakers may have wanted to present a different angle to the case since the Paradise Lost films showed the accused up close and personal. The construction of this plot just doesn’t work under the perspectives of Pam (Reese Witherspoon) and Ron (Colin Firth).
Ron serves as a pro-bono adviser to the defense, but that doesn’t mean he has the same access inside and outside the court. He can gather evidence on his own but really this guy is meant to be a fly-on-the-wall for the planning and frustration of all the legal roadblocks thrown at the defense. Is an added body in the room necessary? Could not one of the defense attorneys have provided the same purpose? Instead, he gets to grumble in the court and out about all the legal shenanigans going on to railroad innocent boys. He is essentially spelling it out to an audience. Pam has even less narrative purpose in the film. Her perspective makes sense early on as the mother of one of the murdered young children. Her panic, her worst nightmare come to life, it all makes for the stuff of major drama, which is why you’d imagine Witherspoon was drawn to the part. But once the case against the West Memphis Three gets going, Pam transforms into our Chief Reaction Shot Provider. Whenever a curious moment happens in court, we cut back to Pam and Witherspoon cocking her head in dawning curiosity and uncertainty. It’s as if she is meant to symbolically represent the entire community that was so fervent in their beliefs that these boys were guilty… until they heard the shaky case and the questionable experts put on the stand. So Pam and Ron end up becoming signals to the audience on how to feel and what to think. The movie doesn’t have enough faith in its audience to keep up with the minutia of the trail, or even the lawyers’ arguments, reducing a complex legal trial down to two nonessential characters nodding or shaking their heads.
I’ll admit that I had some interest watching the actors inhabit the roles, and there are scads of people involved in this story. Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek) does a valiant job showcasing the head-scratching decisions of the trail judge, David Burnett, and his slimy dismissive nature. Stephen Moyer (TV’s True Blood) is particularly infuriating as John Fogleman, chief prosecuting attorney. Seth Meriwether (Trouble with the Curve) looks eerily like his character, the young and accused Jason Baldwin, and he nails his moral convictions and gentle nature. Dane DeHaan (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) gets to do his troubled youth thing he does so well. Kevin Durand is an actor I normally enjoy but even he can’t do justice to John Mark Byers, step-father to one of the slain boys, and easily the most memorable figure in the Paradise Lost films; the man is so theatrical and larger-than-life, and yet Devil’s Knot treats him like a featured extra, with many of his speaking scenes off camera. There isn’t a bad actor in the extremely large cast, though Firth’s Southern accent isn’t the most refined. If the movie lacks much reason for existing, at least the bevy of good actors respectfully bringing new life to these people, good, bad, and many somewhere in between, is the one credible quality to this movie.
What to make of Devil’s Knot, an example of a decent, modulated, and well acted movie that ultimately has no reason to exist in the wake of three excellent documentaries (Paradise Lost) and one other pretty good one (West of Memphis). The ground has been covered. However, that doesn’t mean that a well-told story can’t be told again, with a different angle, with a different approach, but Devil’s Knot hinges on two characters serving as metaphorical barometers to teach the audience what to think and how to feel. Then there’s the matter that the trail covers the entire 114-minute running time. There’s so much more that happens after the initial trial, so much that the last two minutes of this movie are almost a nonstop barrage of text updating the audience on many of the post-trial developments, including the West Memphis Three being released from prison in 2011. The movie feels too limited; there is so much more depth here, to the details of the case, to the personalities and human drama, to the story after the trial. Egoyan and his cast and crew have made a respectful fictional version of these sensational events, but the problem is that they don’t do enough to justify their own film’s existence. Unless you have an irrational hatred for documentaries, just watch those instead.
Nate’s Grade: C+