Director: Atom Egoyan
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth, Dane DeHaan
Opens: 1 May 2014
For decades now, Hollywood has been mining the headlines for inspiration. It was only a matter of time before studio executives turned their attention to the West Memphis Three: a trio of teenagers who were convicted – most likely wrongfully – of murdering three young boys and sentenced to life in prison. You might imagine that the resulting movie would be every bit as disturbing, tragic and thought-provoking as the actual case itself. But Devil’s Knot is more respectful than effective as a film, covering the facts without really getting to the heart of the matter.
On a summer day like any other, Pam Hobbs (Witherspoon) waves goodbye to her little boy Steve as he heads off on his bike with his two friends. It would be the last time she sees him alive. When three bodies turn up in a rain-washed river, the local authorities conclude that the murders bear shades of a Satanic ritual. As a result, other leads – a bloodied man stumbling into a diner near the scene of the crime, a young man (DeHaan) with an odd interest in the boys – fall by the wayside. Instead, three teenagers with an interest in the occult – Damien Echols (James Hamrick), Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether) and Jessie Misskelley Jr. (Kristopher Higgins) – become the targets of a community and legal system eager to find answers, even if it means looking in all the wrong places.
It’s easy to see why these murders, which took place in 1993, have remained so compelling and fascinating, even twenty years later. Mixed up in the heartbreakingly tragic loss of three young lives are weighty themes of prejudice, religious bias and the miscarriage of justice. With new leads consistently popping up that continue to throw the original judicial decision into doubt, it’s small wonder that private investigators like Ron Lax (played by a rather miscast Colin Firth in the film) find themselves turning over and over the facts of the case, trying to figure out how the police narrowed their search in a way that seemed to lead to obvious – and likely erroneous – conclusions.
But Atom Egoyan’s film never really delves into the horror and humanity of the story it wants to tell. At some point along the way, the film shifts into documentary mode, hitting the story beats but never really finding its heart. There are a couple of emotional moments that come courtesy of Witherspoon’s shell-shocked Pam, but very little insight is otherwise provided into the psyches of the characters. We spend hardly any time with the parents of the other two victims, and we’re never really given the opportunity to come to grips with the seemingly stone-cold Damien or his two alleged accomplices – a befuddled Jason and a haplessly confused Jessie.
For anyone unfamiliar with the West Memphis Three, Devil’s Knot will serve as a good enough primer: it’s a dutiful version of the story, with the bare facts alone capable of chilling most people to the bone. But anyone who’s more interested in the twists, turns, implications and consequences of the case might be better served by looking elsewhere. There are a few actual documentaries out there – the Paradise Lost series and West Of Memphis (produced by Peter Jackson) – that are considerably more incisive in their approach to these murders.
Summary: A respectful but overly restrained dramatisation of true events – the real story is far more devilish and knotty than the film suggests.
RATING: 2 out of 5 stars