Canadian director Atom Egoyan adapts the true story of the West Memphis Three, who were made famous throughout the world with the documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. In 1993, teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. were put on trial for savagely murdering three young boys, leading to a controversial trial and numerous false accusations.
It’s a sunny May day and Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon) and her eight-year-old Stevie (Jet Jurgensmeyer) are strolling in the sunshine. The kid is singing Elvis and mum is hiding her smile. This is West Memphis, Arkansas, 1993, and before nightfall Stevie and two of his pals have gone missing after a late afternoon bike ride out to a nearby creek. Soon after, it looks like the whole town has turned out to search for the boys in an effort to hold back the dismal tide, giving hope to parents who are already falling into despair.
The next day bodies are found. Each of the lads lifted from the water by tearful grown men. The kids come out of that muddy creek like obscene play dolls; small blue-tinged porcelain white and trussed at their feet and ankles with black string as if they were animals. The bodies have been ripped at, suggesting torture. There’s talk of ritual killing. Satanism. Such things are taken like the gospel in West Memphis where folks declare their faith on their bumpers as well as their sleeves. They weren’t born again to live in this hell.
The cops pursue the few leads they’ve got in a kind of daze, a toxic mix of community pressure, cold anger and genuine outrage. They’ll look at anything and everything in order to see if it fits and it’ll stick where it counts: in court. They turn up witnesses. From the safe vantage of the videotaped interview, these folks point the collective finger at a trio of the town’s fringe dwellers: Damien Echols (James Hamrick), Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether) and Jessie Misskelley Jr. (Kris Higgins), who are all quickly condemned. In West Memphis, they’re unsympathetic straight off; high-school dropouts who wear black and listen to metal. Each of them still teenagers, they’ve all had trouble with the law. Echols, who has a history of psych illness, and is the most articulate of the three, allows that he has an interest in witchcraft. The prosecution accused all three of ‘Satanic Murder’. They’re convicted. Echols is sentenced to death. Still, as the saying goes, that isn’t the half of it.
The Devil’s Knot is a dramatisation of a true unsolved case history that’s already well known to the movies. Since 1996, there have been four documentaries: most famously the Paradise trilogy by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (1996-2011), and Amy Berg’s West of Memphis (2012). These pictures have sifted the evidence, evaluated new theories, provided fresh suspects, condemned police and the courts for incompetence and interrogated the ideological, cultural and social forces that put three teens on trial on the flimsiest of evidence.
So it’s not really surprising that when this fine movie based on a non-fiction bestseller by Mara Leveritt appeared last year, US critics were sceptical. They were not kind. They didn’t like its narrative sprawl, the low-key mood, slow burn feel, the focus on procedural detail, the steady gaze of its wide angled camera, or the fact that director Atom Egoyan and his screenwriters Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson tabled no new theories or evidence. They didn’t like Colin Firth much, either. He plays, with the air of one grown weary with moral outrage, the closest thing the movie has to a conventional hero, Ronald Lax, a private eye who signed on pro bono to assist Echols’ defence. Like some kind of benign spectre, he haunts the prosecutions case as a sane pedant amongst a chorus of eager improvisers.
Firth’s version of Southern Gentry, for me, is one of the movie’s great grace notes and smart casting in more ways than one. At first, he comes on as a crusader. He rationalises his interest in the case to a colleague as a tilt at the death penalty, making no apology for his assumption that even if the accused did it, three dead kids are plenty. But as the story progresses, the case plunges him into a world that one suspects he only understood at some intellectual level. In the face of ‘trailer trash’, bizarre sub-cultures, and God-botherers, he is like some bewildered tourist visiting from a far off land where all problems are of the First World. Pretty soon the case is giving him nightmares. That feeling is contagious. I rarely feel a sense of what I can only call ‘foreign-ness’ in American films. I did not feel at home at any time watching Devil’s Knot. Then I remembered Egoyan is Canadian.
Of course, Egoyan is a master at articulating what invades the psyche of Lax. That is grief. In The Sweet Hereafter, it was a plague to be healed. Here it is the fuel for hysteria. Egoyan is a superb technician of emotion. What he is bringing to the unfinished saga of the West Memphis Three is a sense of lived experience. Every scene has what old-time directors would have called a sting – that moment that punches up a scene and tells us something we can take away from and gain access to their private world. When cops suggest hair samples will be helpful for their investigation, Witherspoon rips out her hair. In the circumstances it feels perfectly reasonable.
That’s typical of the film. There’s an attitude here that is not cynical, pessimistic or out to thrill. Egoyan provides no phony suspense or convenient villain. He’s out to explore, contemplate, and find a way to get angry and mourn at the same time. That’s ambitious and I’m not sure it all works. But scene for scene, it plays. There’s no real pay-off. Perhaps that’s a rebuke to the convention that demands movies soothe and affirm.
Amongst its incidental pleasures are deeply felt performances and a sensibility that transcends the familiar. It’s about mob mentality. It’s about prejudice. It’s about trusting your feelings even when those gut instincts are sending you to a special hell. In its way, this is the most terrifying horror movie I’ve seen in a long time; the woods where the kids die are like something out of Evil Dead. I was left angry and wrung out.