Really, on paper, the whole thing ought to be a slam dunk : the trial of the so-called “West Memphis Three” is prime material for either a gripping, emotionally impacting human drama or a nail-biting courtroom procedural, take your pick. Add in the talents of director extraordinaire (well, okay, Chloe sucked, but we’ll give him a pass on that) Atom Egoyan, probably the best known of the former “Toronto New Wave” filmmakers (no offense to Bruce McDonald or Don McKellar, who also continue to do stellar work), who has shown a deft hand in dealing with material centered on the aftermath of tragedy in the past (most notably in Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, the latter of which earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomiation), and you’d seem to be in very good hands, indeed. The screenplay is co-authored by up-and-coming horror maestro Scott Derickson (director of Sinister, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, The Day The Earth Stood Still remake, and the forthcoming Deliver Us From Evil and Doctor Strange) and his frequent collaborator, Paul Harris Boardman, so you can’t go wrong there, either, right?
Then we’ve got the stellar cast : Colin Firth as lead defense investigator Ron Lax, Reese Witherspoon as grieving mother Pam Hobbs, Dane DeHaan as suspect-for-a-second Christopher Morgan, James Hamrick as supposed “Satanic cult ringleader/child killer” Damien Echols, and supporting turns from the likes of Mireile Enos, Bruce Greenwood, Elias Koteas, Kevin Durand, and Alessandro Nivola. And they all turn in, to a person, strong performances, as do Kristopher Higgins and Seth Meriwether as the other two accused “killers.” Seriously, this is an all-star production from top to bottom.
So why does 2013’s Devil’s Knot leave me feeling so flat, and why didn’t it even manage to score a domestic theatrical release ( fair warning, I caught it on Netflix instant streaming, so no DVD or Blu-Ray specs information will be included in this review)? It’s a fair question, with an unfair answer : pretty much for reasons entirely beyond its control.
First off, for those of you who don’t know, here are the particulars of the case upon which this film is based : in 1993, the bodies of three young children — Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore — were found in a wooded area known as “Devil’s Knot” (hence the film’s title) behind a typically slow-burn soul-eating suburban subdivision known as Robin Hood Hills in West Memphis, Arkansas. Despite having several leads to pursue in the case (including two of the kids’ stepfathers), the cops more or less immediately circled in on local “bad boy”/junior misanthrope Damien Echols and two of his friends, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley,Jr. Their “evidence”? The fabricated-from-wholecloth testimony of a kid who wasn’t even there (and whose mother bargained for her son to give a statement in exchange for having credit card-fraud charges against her dismissed) and a coerced “confession” (later recanted) from Misskelley, who is mentally retarded. Oh, and the fact that Echols like to dress in black, listen to heavy metal music (of the entirely mainstream variety — we’re talking Metallica and Slayer here, not Burzum or Emperor) and read books by Aleister Crowley. He supposedly had at least a passing interest in Satanism, as well (who wouldn’t, growing up in a dysfunctional family that lived in a run-down trailer court? Spend some time in one of those places and you’ll realize how lucky we are that they haven’t produced a veritable legion of either serial killers, revolutionaries, or both). Apparently, in the buckle of the Bible belt, that’s more than enough by way of “proof.”
The prosecution was hopelessly fucked, of course, but it worked anyway — Baldwin and Misskelley were given life sentences and Echols was scheduled to be executed. But then things took a turn : an HBO documentary film titled Paradise Lost showed the glaring holes in the prosecution’s case and its lack of anything even remotely resembling evidence to tie the three then-teenagers to the crime. Appeal after appeal was filed as high-profile supporters with deep pockets kept the wheels of justice turning (slowly). Two sequels to the original documentary followed, keeping the case in the public eye. New evidence with the potential to implicate others came to light. And a lot of volunteers never quit fighting.
Eventually, after 18 years in prison. Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were all able to arrange a very rare — but perfectly legal — Alford plea, the terms of which dictated that they remained listed as convicted felons but admitted no guilt for the crime they’d been accused and convicted of. Today, they’re all free men. Hail Satan, right?
Here’s the rub, though, when it comes to this film : unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know all this shit already. Besides the three aforementioned Paradise Lost flicks, there’s also been another documentary, West Of Memphis, that covers pretty much the same ground. They’re all good movies. And so is this, on both an artistic and technical level. But it doesn’t add anything new to what’s already known, and maybe that’s just because it can’t.
All of which puts Egoyan, his fine screenwriters, and his fine cast in a tough spot : getting blood from a rock. Water from a dry well. A charitable donation from a cheapskate. An ounce of sense from a Tea Party member. It just ain’t possible. I give the folks involved in Devil’s Knot all the credit in the world for trying — they never stoop to Lifetime movie-of-the-week melodrama and consistently handle this touchy subject matter with the respect and care it deserves. This is a quality piece of work. But it’s also a complete re-hash, and by its very nature can do nothing but give short shrift to a story that’s been covered in much greater detail elsewhere. You honestly have to wonder, when watching Devil’s Knot, why they even made the thing in the first place.
Which, mind you, is not the same thing as me saying they shouldn’t have made it. There’s seriously nothing wrong with this flick. But there’s no real point to it, either, unless you’re completely unaware of the four other films that preceded it, in which case I guess this would serve as a very good “primer” on the case. Beyond that, though, well — there’s just nothing new under the sun, is there?
I opened this review by saying that Devi’s Knot looks like a “can’t-miss” deal on paper, But in reality it’s a” can’t-win” situation any way you slice it.