If you don’t know the story of the West Memphis Three by now, I’m not sure where you’ve been living. Even rock-dwellers have heard it. There have been four documentaries, a handful of books, news stories and countless rallies with musicians as diverse as Metallica, Natalie Maines and Pearl Jam lending their names to the cause of three misfit teenagers from rural Arkansas who were convicted of the murder of three pre-teens in the early 1990s.
Whether they were wrongfully convicted or not has been contested in the court of law and of public opinion for much of the last two decades, since the first documentary, Paradise Lost, aired on HBO in 1996, three years after the murder and two years after their conviction.
If, by chance, you’ve somehow never heard of it, this film – a “based on a true story” feature, not a documentary – re-creates the story of the murder of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore in May 1993. The nature of the murders – the boys were found in the woods naked and hog-tied with their own shoelaces – led investigators to believe this was an occult murder, and they eventually set their sights on three local misfits: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley.
At the center of the film is Pamela Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), the mother of Stevie Branch, and Ron Lax (Colin Firth), a private investigator who is suspicious of the style of justice meted out by the local police. Overwhelmed, the police let the pressure of the case, and of the media interest in it, lead them down a rabbit hole of bungles and fabrications in order to send the boys to trial as quickly as possible in a kangaroo court.
It’s unclear what the director, Atom Egoyan, intended to do here. The film has no personality or authorship. There is no arc or drama, only scenes lined up one after another. Egoyan gets so bogged down in the facts of the case that he sidesteps telling the story at all. It has no point of view.
That leaves Colin Firth largely wasted as the film’s conscience, and Witherspoon has not exactly found her comeback as the emotionally erratic mother of Stevie Branch; but it’s Egoyan who has failed the story, not their performances.
What might end up being the most interesting thing about this film is that it was eventually the wedge that drove two of the suspects, Baldwin and Echols, apart. Echols, who was an executive producer on the documentary West of Memphis, objected to how he was portrayed in the script for Devil’s Knot, for which Baldwin was an executive producer. Being too close and too protective of their own stories and their own personas may be the downfall of both films, but that’s especially the case with Devil’s Knot, which not only has no suspense to speak of, but also has no closure, art or direction. If you’ve come to expect more from Egoyan over the years, he’s failed you as well.