Dir: Atom Egoyan
Starring: Reece Witherspoon, Colin Firth, Dane DeHaan, Stephen Moyer, Mireille Enos and James Hamrick
In the summer of 1993, three 8 year old boys went to play in the woods of West Memphis, Arkansas and never returned. When their bodies were discovered, the brutality of their deaths was linked by authorities to be as some part of a Satanic ritual. Soon afterwards, three teenagers were arrested and put on trial founded on intense interrogation and highly circumstantial evidence as a result of the ‘Satanic Panic’ that was running amuck in the American Mid-West. The boys all faced extreme charges, the penalties of which included life imprisonment and condemnation to death.
Based on the book of the same name by Mara Leveritt, it is surprising that it has taken such a long time for a theatrical retelling of the chilling and blood-boiling events that surrounded the West Memphis Three. Whilst some may feel that it could be considered to still be ‘too soon’, the far more likely reason is the existence of the immaculate ‘Paradise Lost’ trilogy of documentaries.
At a combined total of nearly 10 hours, it is no surprise that Atom Egoyan felt that the story needed to be kept to a more mainstream running time but this only proves to be one of the film’s key detriments. It was interesting that in the film, Firth has a brief dialogue with a documentary filmmaker, presumably supposed to be Joe Berlinger. I’m sure this was intended to be a wry nod of acknowledgement from Egoyan to what came before him, but sadly only served as another reminder of how better this story had already been captured.
The most noteworthy element of the film is that it was surprisingly enjoyable and refreshing to see Colin Firth not just playing the same bloody character he’s done for seemingly his entire career aka stuffy but secretly hopeless romantic upper-class Brit. Adopting a convincing southern drawl, Firth plays investigator, Ron Lax, one of the very first people to dare to raise a contrary voice to the overwhelming majority belief of the guilt of the three boys. Whilst he is stereotyped with the saddle of being an alcoholic, Firth displays a huge amount of conviction in his character and expertly represents the outrage and indignation many felt at the hideously one-sided case against the WM3.
The three boys themselves, whilst irritatingly not given enough screen time, also provide an almost scary degree of accuracy in their portrayals. James Hamrick as Damien Echols is especially brilliant and crucially, the sole occasion in which the film gets its handling of the story completely spot on. Hamrick’s performance is a perfect medium of both intimidatingly suspect and yet at the same time, vulnerable. Beneath his veneer of being cold and aggressive, we see how much he fears for his mortality and his despair that seemingly no one will believe in his innocence.
It is a shame, however, that both DeHaan and Witherspoon who are both usually so reliable, are very much on auto-pilot here. As the mother of one of the murdered boys, Witherspoon does track the emotional journey the real life Pam Hobbs underwent of initially cursing the accused to being the first to start to believe in their innocence superbly. The problem is, however, that due to Egoyan’s unsettled nature and desire to jump between stories, her performance that could have been packed full of nuance and inner turmoil is muted as a result of the reduced screen time.
DeHaan fares far worse, on the evidence such as this, it is clear that he’s getting all too dangerously close to being stereotyped as ‘the creepy guy’. Don’t get me wrong, he is amazing at what he does, but his almost pantomime villain performance here threatens to tip the film off the rails and into yet further mediocrity.
The recreations of the 90s is faithfully captured through the now humourlessly chunky mobile phones and of course, dress sense but very little effort is made to get a real sense of the community at the time. What caused the almost witch-hunt of the three accused boys was the tightly bound community bonded together by their faith and almost uniform identity of polite small town America. The fact that the accused were the total antithesis to this fuelled the flames of the town’s paranoia and, arguably, the police’s personal prejudices. Egoyan’s limited focus in his three storylines skimps on the Satanic Panic that was sweeping America at the time and as a result, leaves the film feeling a tad limp and without much context.
Admittedly, those who have read a lot into the case or watched the documentaries bring heightened levels of expectation that a theatrical feature, primarily designed to entertain, could never hope to fully satisfy. So does it work on a cinematic level? Well no, the film rushes through interesting and well captured moments, such as the child whose recorded statement was proven to be completely manipulated and then slows down to an excruciating snail’s pace when dealing with Rox Lax’s divorce.
The film’s main stumbling block is its sheer reluctance to really get its hands dirty and expose the truly horrifying nature of the case and the highly dubious actions of the police and justice system. Scenes of a potentially troubling nature are handled with the delicate care of the ‘Hallmark’ channel and it is only come the end of the film with its fact cards that any real feathers are properly rustled, the audience I was in shaking their heads in disbelief at the all too true farcical actions of the police force after the events of the film had concluded. It is of course difficult to render dramatic tension when we already know the outcome but if a film like David Fincher’s ‘Zodiac’ can make it look so effortless and resurrect the genuine horror behind a real life case, then such an excuse simply doesn’t hold much water.
‘The Devil’s Knot’ could have been made far stronger if it had simply stuck to one of its three storylines and told that version of ‘what happened’. In attempting to cover all the ground, Egoyan has spread himself far too thin. As a result of trying to focus on all the key footnotes, the director lost out on creating any real intrigue, tension or even and perhaps most crucially, any sense of anger at the injustice the boys suffered. Perhaps, stories as shocking and confounding as this can only be properly expressed through the documentary medium. Real life can be infinitely more terrifying and aggravating than any piece of fiction.
Verdict: A heavily sedated trundle through an incendiary story, only held afloat by the solid performances. 5/10