devil's knot

In 1993, the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas became a roiling mess of controversy and paranoia in the wake of the murder of three young boys. Police suspicion quickly fell on a different trio of boys who weren’t much older than the victims. Nothing but extremely tenuous circumstantial evidence connected these teenagers to the killings, but the country was in the midst of Satanic Panic, the police believed the crime to be ritualistic in nature, and the young men were considered weird outsiders. Over the decades, the case of the West Memphis Three has been the subject of four documentary films, a book, benefit concerts and albums, and innumerable news articles. And now the story has finally gotten the Hollywood treatment.

The West Memphis Three’s story is a chilling study in mass hysteria and grave legal wrongdoing. It’s a terrific subject for a film, but Devil’s Knot squanders that potential in the ugliest manner possible. It’s focus is on all of the wrong aspects of the real events. It’s restrained where it should let loose and broad where it should pull back. In 1997’s The Sweet Hereafter, director Atom Egoyan magnificently handled the effect that the death of children has on a tight-knit community. None of that touch is present here.

The aspect of the West Memphis Three that makes it the most problematic for Hollywood filmmakers is the very draw that the story has. The eponymous Three – Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. – were as far from ideal heroes as you can get. They were rebellious loners, and not in the attractive manner that you’d see on a CW primetime high school show. That’s why the police pounced on them: people found these kids off-putting.

Devil’s Knot chooses instead as its main characters two people who are really satellites to the Three’s story. The first is Ron Lax (Colin Firth), a private investigator working for the boys’ defense team. The bulk of the plot concerns him unraveling the case against the Three. The second is Pamela Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), the mother of one of the victims. The film strains to mesh what happens to her with the main story. And it’s all insufferable because Witherspoon is overacting to a cringeworthy degree in nearly every scene she’s in. Firth is alright but dull, straining under the common British actor ailment of having to subdue his voice and mannerisms, lest his accent slip loose.

So much of Devil’s Knot is concerned with procedure. It makes sense, since it’s based on Maya Leveritt’s 2002 book of the same name, which was largely about the crime itself, the investigation, and the trial. But there’s been over ten years of development since then, which makes that angle bizarre. The movie’s obsession with picking apart the “evidence” presented against the Three would be baffling even if the wider world didn’t already know that they are innocent (the boys would eventually go free, though only after legal battle that took nearly twenty years). The meticulous attention to true crime details comes at the expense of material that could express the suffering of the victims’ families, to say nothing of the turmoil experienced by three boys facing life imprisonment or the death sentence for a crime they did not commit.

This movie is a very peculiar case, in that it subjects three straight white men to a treatment usually experienced by minority figures in films based on true stories. Hollywood is always eager to see where it can fit white people into the accomplishments of the lesser-privileged. Since everyone in this case was white, the lower-class weirdos got the short shrift. Never mind that they were the ones who became the focal point for a huge grassroots movement that supported them for decades and ultimately helped them go free.

In one scene, Lax meets a pair of filmmakers shooting footage of the trial. It’s an obvious allusion to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, whose landmark documentary Paradise Lost helped drum up support for the Three. Watching that film is a far better way to learn about this story than Devil’s Knot. Its intentions are good, but its actions are bungled.