The West Memphis Three case is given a well-intentioned, but dramatically lackluster and shallow screen adaptation with Devil’s Knot.
There was a pertinent question that the filmmakers behind Devil’s Knot should have asked themselves well before ink was ever put to paper – what do we have to say about the West Memphis Three case that is in any way more illuminating than what has come before? After all, this tragic true crime story has been painstakingly documented with meticulous detail in no less than four critically acclaimed documentaries, including the Paradise Lost trilogy and Amy Berg’s recent West of Memphis. There were several directions this narrative feature could have taken including a pure court procedural, an intimate look at the lives behind the suspected killers, or even a feature focused solely on the parents who lost their children and their reaction to the circus the case became. Instead, director Atom Egoyan has crafted a well-meaning, but ill-defined amalgamation of several points of view on the case that add up to a disjointed whole.
For those unfamiliar with the infamous murder case, in 1993 in the town of West Memphis, Arkansas, three missing young boys’ bodies (Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, Michael Moore) were found bound and mutilated in the woods. Because of the horrendous nature of the crimes, Satanic worship was suspected as motive and as a result three heavy metal loving loner teenagers were put on trial for murder. The case was grossly mishandled by the prosecutors, the police department, and the judge presiding over the trial. Evidence against the three teenagers – Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. – was circumstantial at best and most testimony against them didn’t hold up with the facts (it is easy to see now that most were outright lying and many have recanted their testimony). But the town needed scapegoats, and due to their outsider nature the three teenage boys became the perfect target. This true story does have a bittersweet ending – in August of 2011 Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were released from prison on an Alford plea deal, essentially letting them off with time served while still remaining convicted murderers. To this day they are pursuing full exoneration while attempting to find the three young boys’ true killer.
The problem of tone appears within the first seconds of Devil’s Knot, as the camera eerily glides through the woods in a shot reminiscent of The Evil Dead. Foreboding horror motifs (courtesy of composer Mychael Danna) accompany the on-the-nose imagery to laughable effect. There are other horror clichés strewn throughout the piece, including fogged-up dream sequences where nothing is as it seems. These sections clash terribly with the film’s domestic drama scenes as well as its courtroom proceedings. Yes, these crimes were horrific and deserve to be depicted as such, but the mixing of genre tools puts the film remarkably off-balance from the beginning and it never recovers. Not enough time is spent on any one dynamic to give the film any dramatic weight and as such for a film about pain, suffering, and injustice it feels unacceptably lifeless.
There is talent in the acting department, but they have been cast to play pale shadows of their real life counterparts. Reese Witherspoon as Pamela Hobbs has a few effective moments playing the grieving mother of slain child Stevie Branch, such as her recreation of a news interview where she wears her dead son’s Cub Scout neckerchief. However, for the most part she is relegated to crying and literally pulling her hair out. Alessandro Nivola is silently intimidating as her husband Terry Hobbs, but his big scene that hints at the violence underneath is wrought with furniture-destroying movie hysterics. Colin Firth plays private investigator Ron Lax as if he is in a perpetual hung-over dream state, though his southern drawl is convincing. It doesn’t help that the script provides Firth with no character development or backstory save for the revelation that he is recently divorced. Kevin Durand woefully underplays the zany John Mark Byers to the point that you question his mental capacity. Byers is a fascinating creature and his outrageous antics are well documented in the Paradise Lost trilogy. It would have been many an actors’ dream to bring that man to life on the big screen; here it is simply a missed opportunity. Most of the performances come across as if they were afraid to embrace the real quirks of these people for fear of caricature. Their understated efforts betray any sense of authenticity that the film had to offer.
The three young actors cast to play Echols (James Hamrick), Baldwin (Seth Meriwether), and Misskelley (Kristopher Higgins) come off the best in their performances. No, they aren’t given any more screen time than their acting counterparts, but they certainly look the part and portray the naiveté of youth and the hopelessness of their situation with believable despair. James Hamrick is particularly effective in his courtroom scenes where he realizes that his testimony has no hope of appeasing the mob thirsting for a lynching. Hamrick fills Damien Echols with unexpected nuance and captures the quiet, closed-off demeanor that sealed his fate before the trial began perfectly. His power lies in his sad piercing eyes that the camera naturally fixates on. He is certainly an actor to watch out for.
There is one scene in the film that presents an interesting opportunity for what could have been. After a tense day at the courthouse, Ron Lax approaches the documentary filmmakers who were given full access to the trial (they would eventually produce the original Paradise Lost). The moment is treated as a simple plot point where the documentary crew gives over a piece of evidence gifted to them by John Mark Beyers, which may link him to the murders. They are never seen or heard from again in the film, but this one scene could have been the key to an entirely different and more effective screenplay. What if the film were presented from the documentary crew’s perspective, who famously took up the cause of releasing the West Memphis Three? The inside access to the boys on trial would have provided an In Cold Blood Truman Capote experience that would have granted the narrative with deeper insight into the case itself and could have given the film an actual human element. Alas, it was not to be.
It is clear while watching Devil’s Knot that Antom Egoyan meant well with this tepid depiction of real life events. But even the best of directors would have a hard time overcoming such a lazy, misguided, and uninspired screenplay by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derickson. With a case this famous having previously been documented so well, fresh ideas were essential when attempting to adapt this atrocious unresolved crime into a narrative feature. Unfortunately, Devil’s Knot is a failure on nearly every front.