Atom Egoyan’s dramatized take on the events surrounding the West Memphis Three murder case and trial, Devil’s Knot, is a tad too redundant and tasteful for its own good. A staunch and rigidly constructed procedural, there’s nothing bad about it, really, but given the wealth of information that already exists regarding one of the most botched criminal investigations and media circuses in history, there’s just nothing that anyone can bring to the table here other than their talent.
In 1993 in the small community of West Memphis, Arkansas, three young boys were brutally murdered, bound, and left for dead in a horrifying case that seemed to be a ritual killing of sorts. Three young men in their late teens were arrested for the crime pretty much because they were oddball outcasts and in spite of the fact that there wasn’t any physical evidence to tie any of them to the crimes. Only this time, instead of looking at the specifics of the case, Egoyan and company opt for a more overarching view of the events told predominantly through the eyes of a pro bono private investigator working for the defense (Colin Firth) and the increasingly sceptical mother of one of the victims (Reese Witherspoon). Both are cogs in a larger machine that can only sit and watch a miscarriage of justice on all sides without having the ability to affect any major change on the situation.
Egoyan does a nice job of falling back on his theatre background here, making the film’s numerous courtroom sequences feel vibrant instead of dry, and that’s a tough thing to do when making a film that’s as slavishly and faithfully attuned to the details of the real life events as this one is. He also gets the most out of a great cast – especially Firth and Bruce Greenwood as the presiding judge – but these actors and the roles they play are never made out to be much more than overly familiar pawns within an already far too well known construct. When the most memorable moments of a reality based true crime film take place over motions in a courtroom, something is awry somewhere.
Coming hot on the heels of not one, but four really high profile theatrically released documentaries on the subject, several books written on this subject (this one based on a work written by Mara Leveritt), and numerous television profiles, Egoyan makes the somewhat suspect decision to not add anything to the story beyond just the facts. The ultimate result is a tragedy that feels stripped of any emotion because merely showing emotion would skew the facts of the case or look like the film was biased. Maybe it actually needs that bias after all this time, since anyone who has seen even one film or TV show about the case probably already knows mostly everything there is to know about it. It’s not exactly an obscure case anymore, and if a drama about it doesn’t want to go beyond the facts, the results are characters and a cast that get shortchanged in a bid for relevancy over dramatic convention.
The perfect example of this is Witherspoon’s grieving mother, who should be full of rage, sadness, and confusion. Witherspoon is clearly trying to convey these emotions, but she’s always getting shuttled to the background because she threatens to get in the way of the case and the already long since established innocence of the men who were accused of killing her son. It’s frustrating given how well acted and technically well made the film ultimately is to watch it keep pulling back every few moments because the characters are in danger of actually feeling something for themselves.
It’s a pretty major complaint and one that would somewhat rightfully suggest that the film is, for lack of a better word, kind of useless overall. That in no way means that it’s an actual bad movie. If one were to go into Devil’s Knot with precisely zero knowledge of the case or why the constant bumbling of local authorities (nicely played here by Egoyan for feelings of remorse rather than anger and ineptitude) or how long rooted religious ties left people looking for an occult figure to blame for such a horrific crime, then maybe the film would ultimately work. It would be arrogant of me to assume that by now everyone has heard of the case, but since I have it’s impossible to keep this film’s shortcomings out of mind no matter how well it’s staged.