It has been twenty years since the horrifically mutilated, murdered bodies of children Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers were found in a creek in the middle of Robin Hood Hills in Arkansas. And thus started a saga that spanned nearly two decades, with the trials of the accused Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin gaining national attention, which eventually turned to outrage. Chronicled in great detail via the ‘Paradise Lost‘ trilogy of documentaries as well as Amy Berg‘s “West Of Memphis,” the case of the West Memphis Three soon became one of justice denied, not only to the three young men, but also the victims whose real killer or killers is still unidentified. A controversial Alford Plea agreed to by the trio of boys in 2011 has effectively closed the case, and nearly every angle of the investigation from paths taken to those unexplored has been scrutinized. So is there anything new to say about the West Memphis Three? Can there be any additional texture or drama found in taking a dramatized approach to this still jaw-dropping true story? Unfortunately, according to Atom Egoyan‘s “Devil’s Knot,” the answer is no.
Marking the first major Hollywood adaptation of this story, boasting a considerably major league cast led by Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth, Egoyan’s film remarkably manages to take this extraordinary story of small town hysteria and the zealous pursuit of justice which is blind to finding the truth, and turn it into a fairly routine courtroom drama. With a script from Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman, outside of some fictional scenes that establish Pam Hobbs (Witherspoon) as the protagonist and her son Stevie as the emotional totem, we’re not sure what exactly the pair of writers did outside of watch the documentaries by Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger (and yes, there is a quick, passing reference during “Devil’s Knot” to the production of their documentary) and look over court transcripts. Quite simply, there is absolutely nothing in this film that was already covered more exhaustively in the aforementioned documentaries, which are actually more dramatic and involving than Egoyan’s film.
The problem is that “Devil’s Knot” tries to do in less than two hours what ‘Paradise Lost’ did in more than six, and the approach itself finds the film fighting an uphill battle from the first minute. In covering the exact same territory we’ve seen already in the HBO presentations, with every potential alternate theory trotted out, various missteps and questionable moves by the prosecution highlighted, and the atmosphere surrounding the trial covered, “Devil’s Knot” lacks potency or a compelling narrative reason why anyone remotely familiar with the case needs to be watching it. That being said, it’s unclear whether Egoyan and the screenwriters are really aiming to tell their own version of this story. The examples of flawed evidence and not-so-expert witnesses that are presented will make sense for those know the case of the West Memphis Three, and yet they still feel scattershot and random, and we can only imagine that sense of imbalance will be even more emphasized for those who are unfamiliar with ins and outs of the various trials.
And outside of what is mentioned and not mentioned in the film, perhaps more glaring is that there is no sense of time. It was not the first trial that saw the case of the West Memphis Three gain traction, but the appeals process, in which far more about the murders and supposed perpetrators and motivations were brought to the fore. “Devil’s Knot” is sadly a CliffsNotes version of this case—even Wikipedia is more thorough—that completely misses the outrage, injustice and severe breadth of how much investigative and prosecutorial mistakes severely bungled this case from its very first moments. And it’s a shame because there is a great ensemble here who could’ve made this a powerful piece of material, but they are simply given nothing to work with.
As investigator for the defense, Ron Lax, Firth brings a ready gravitas to the part, but the script does all the work for him, so that he doesn’t have to do much except stand around and look concerned. A single scene with his ex-wife Margaret (played by Amy Ryan who deserves better than a couple minutes of cameo time) finds her describing him as obsessive rather than letting us see that for ourselves. Meanwhile, a separate scene with a diner waitress, Annie (Lori Beth Sikes), allows her explain to Eric and the audience that he has to defend these boys because no else will. And it’s this kind of thudding sentimentality that pervades the picture, with a scene of schoolchildren group hugging Pam Hobbs a striking standard of just how cheaply the film attempts to wring sincere feeling out of this tale.
And like Ryan, most of the rest of the cast pop up ever so briefly. Mirielle Enos appears as the mother of a child who is the lone key witness for prosecutors; Elias Koteas delivers some trademark sketchiness as Damien’s parole office; Bruce Greenwood is the sleepy trial judge; with “Mad Men” star Michael Gladis as a defense lawyer; and “True Blood” thesp Stephen Moyer on the prosecution, with all not particularly memorable. Though we will give a shout out to Kevin Durand who is perfectly cast as the patently bonkers John Mark Byers, and getting his bible thumping righteousness nailed down cold. (And the West Memphis Three are cast well too, particularly James Hamrick as Damien.)
As the film ends, an extensive title card sequence details where the investigation went in subsequent years, particularly in regards to DNA evidence that pointed to Terry Hobbs’ (Alessandro Nivola) involvement in the deaths of the kids. And frankly, it’s in this end note where the movie should’ve been drawn. We’ve already had to the court cases run down more than once in books, movies and television, so why not start with the guilty verdicts and show how investigators continued to dismantle the prosecution’s case and present if not the innocence of the West Memphis Three, then at least the exceptional reasonable doubt that led to their release? That’s the real story here, and that could potentially be a powerful piece of filmmaking. But as it stands, “Devil’s Knot” gets so tied up in the mechanics of where the West Memphis Three have been, it has no insight into where this case might be going. [D]