Alessandro Nivola, Arkansas, Atom Egoyan, based on a book, based on a true story, child killing, cinema, Colin Firth, Damien Echols, Dane DeHaan, Devil's Knot, drama, false accusations, film reviews, films, James Hamrick, Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley, Joe Berlinger, Kevin Durand, Kris Higgins, Mireille Enos, Movies, murdered children, Pam Hobbs, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Reese Witherspoon, Satanic panic, Scott Derrickson, Seth Meriwether, small town life, true crime, West Memphis, West Memphis Three
Sometimes, there’s only so often you can replow the same ground before you have to let it fallow. Farmers know this but, unfortunately, it’s a fact of life that many filmmakers have yet to fully grasp. This can be applied to remakes and “reimaginings” (my personal pet peeves) but it’s just as valid when discussing multiple films made about the same subject. This problem becomes more pronounced when there’s already a “definitive” work on the particular subject, since anything that follows will either seem lesser, by comparison, or will borrow too much from its predecessor in order to capture some of that lightning twice. Such, unfortunately, is the case with Atom Egoyan’s recent crime-drama, Devil’s Knot (2013), which attempts to put a “slightly fictionalized” spin on the true-life story of the West Memphis Three. The problem, of course, is that the same story was already told in a much more definitive way with Joe Berlinger and Sinofsky’s excellent documentary Paradise Lost (1996). When you already have a film (and two follow-up documentaries) that have already examined the subject in great detail, what more could a fictionalized account of the same incident bring? In the case of Devil’s Knot, the answer is a resounding “Not much at all.”
For those not familiar with the circumstances behind the case, here it is, in a nutshell: In 1993, the bound and tortured bodies of three 8-year-old boys were found in the woods outside of West Memphis, Arkansas. Due to the intense interrogation of teenage suspect Jessie Misskelley (who just happened to be mentally handicapped), two other local teens were arrested: Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin. Due to the three boys’ interest in heavy metal, along with Echol’s interest in witchcraft and Aleister Crowley, the small town immediately suspected Satanic influence and the trio were tried and convicted with remarkably little actual evidence: Misskelley and Baldwin were sentenced to life in prison, whereas Echols, seen as the “ringleader,” was sentenced to death. After filmmakers Berlinger and Sinofsky began poking around in the case, they began to find lots of discrepancies, along with plenty of other potential suspects (including some from the various boys’ families). The whole thing began to seem like a witch-hunt and the filmmakers’ resulting documentary, Paradise Lost, became a huge hit and initiated a groundswell of support for the trio, including some rather famous folks like Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins. After new evidence finally surfaced, the three were released from prison in 2011: to this point, no one else has been officially charged in the murders, leaving the whole thing as a tragic, unsolved mystery.
Egoyan’s film, then, takes all of the basic facts from the case (and Paradise Lost) and gives everything a melodramatic sheen, choosing to focus in on the character of Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), the mother of one of the murdered boys. We begin with a few bits of small-town life before getting right to the terrible crime, as the bodies of the missing boys are found in the woods. After the police lean hard on Jessie (Kris Higgins), he gives up his two “friends,” Damien (James Hamrick) and Jason (Seth Meriwether, looking so much like a teenage Geddy Lee that it became distracting): all three boys have a reputation as misfits and loners which, along with Damien’s penchant for listening to Slayer and carving his girlfriend’s name into his arm, leads the town to make all the connections they need to. This is, of course, despite the fact that we see plenty of other odd occurences going on: a mysterious muddy and bloody man washes up in a local fast-food bathroom, while local ice-cream truck driver, Chris Morgan (Dane DeHaan), acts so strange that it seems impossible to think he’s not guilty of something. There’s also the highly suspicious behavior of one of the boys’ fathers, Mark Byers (Kevin Duran), and local woman, Vicki Hutchenson (The Killing’s Mireille Enos), who seems to be sexually obsessed with Nichols and openly lies about being taken to a “witches’ coven” by the teen.
A “white knight,” such as it were, emerges in the form of Ron Lax (Colin Firth), the highfalutin’ big city lawyer who takes on the trio’s case, pro bono, in the interests of serving justice. He faces plenty of opposition, obviously, not the least of which comes from Pam’s angry husband, Terry (Alessandro Nivola) and Mark Byers. In time, however, Ron begins to chip away at Pam’s resolve regarding the guilt of the trio: at first, she’s positive that they’re guilty but the facts just don’t add up for her and she comes to believe that the three might be innocent, after all. Worst of all, however, Pam begins to suspect that the real killer might be someone close to her…maybe even her own husband.
Right off the bat, Devil’s Knot suffers from one massive problem: it’s telling the exact same story as Paradise Lost but without the benefit of real-life footage. In Paradise Lost, we meet the real Pam and Terry Hobbs, as well as the real Mark and Melissa Myers, which is a much different ballgame than getting their characters filtered through actors like Witherspoon, Nivola and Duran. In Devil’s Knot, we get everything filtered through a distinct layer of melodrama that gives the situation as much gravitas as a made-for-TV movie. In particular, Witherspoon turns in a wildly dramatic performance, highlighted by scenes like the one where she pulls at her hair (after someone asks for a sample, she responds, “Take it all!”) or goes into her dead son’s classroom in order to drop off his last homework assignment and ends up getting hugged by a mob of his classmates. Couple this with her dead son’s propensity to reappear in flashbacks, singing the same Elvis Presley song, ad nauseam, and it’s pretty clear Egoyan and writer Scott Derrickson (himself the director of films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), Sinister (2012) and Deliver Us From Evil (2014)) are much more interested in tugging at the heart-strings than actually exploring the ins-and-outs of this particular tragedy.
There are also issues with the way in which the film introduces certain plot elements (the mysterious man at the fast-food restaurant, the bit about young Stevie Hobbs’ pocketknife, Chris Morgan) without ever fully developing them: it’s as if Egoyan and Derrickson wanted to touch on everything but couldn’t be bothered to tie it all into a cohesive whole. Since Devil’s Knot has the benefit of being released after the trio were set free, it would seem to have access to more information, not less, than the preceding Paradise Lost. Despite this, however, the film feels unbelievably slight, like a Cliff Notes-version of the events. We spend so much time with Pam and Ron that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley kind of fade into the background: the film seems to want to focus on the victims and their families, yet basically allows Pam Hobbs to just sub-in for all of them. In many ways, this is the story of how she comes to grips with what happened, which ends up marginalizing everyone else’s struggles (including those of the other grieving parents, who are rarely seen).
There’s no denying that the film is well-made: Egoyan has a way of staging everything that can make even the most “innocent” things see ominous and portentous, which is especially evident at the beginning of the film, which is shot almost like a horror movie. While I found the acting to be frequently over-the-top and too “stagey” (Enos is particularly awful, which is strange considering how great she is in The Killing), I was really taken by Firth’s performance: he disappears so completely into the role of the “crusading American lawyer” that it reminded me (fondly) of Hugh Laurie’s performance as the cynical House. Firth ends up being one of the few characters in the film that comes across as genuine, although it’s certainly a case of “too little, too late.”
Ultimately, I’m not sure who Devil’s Knot is supposed to appeal to. Anyone who’s interested in the actual facts of the case would be much better served seeking out Berlinger and Sinofsky’s original film, along with its two sequels, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000) and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011): between those three documentaries, just about everything gets laid bare. Fans of true-crime dramas, on the other hand, would be much better suited seeking something that wasn’t so melodramatic and narrowly focused: if one were to remove the West Memphis Three angle, Devil’s Knot is revealed to be a fairly turgid, if well-made, pot-boiler. All in all, Devil’s Knot ends up being a rather out-of-place creation, a film that’s forever doomed to live in the shadow of a much better, more definitive work.