Editor’s Notes: Devil’s Knot opens in limited release tomorrow, January 24th.
I recently watched the Oscar-nominated documentary The Square, about the enduring political protests in Egypt, and was captivated by its shoot-from-the-hip approach. It created so much urgency that it opened a plot of land for a gripping non-fictional drama. It’s remarkable when a documentary like this, one that has to stay in tow with the rush of an unpredictable reality, dramatizes events so compellingly that the true conflicts and experiences of life don’t seem too distant from behind that illusory screen.
Film is, after all, an illusion of truth, reality, and phenomena. A great filmmaker is one who can blur the lines and I discovered that with Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost trilogy, which documented the West Memphis Three murder case from their trial in 1993-94 to their release on an Alford plea in 2011. Convicted of murdering the three young boys Steven Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin were handed out life sentences, and Damien Echols (the main target due to his interests in the Occult) was sentenced to death.
…it’s a shame that Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot, adapted from Mara Leveritt’s book about the case, never really comes together.
These films documented an incredible arc of injustice, while bringing about certain revelations and change that arguably wouldn’t have occurred without those cameras rolling. “I really believe they would’ve killed me,” the real Echols said in the third Paradise Lost documentary, speculating on his fate without these films in the ether. Needless to say, this case is the stuff of cinema so it’s a shame that Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot, adapted from Mara Leveritt’s book about the case, never really comes together.
It’s a nonfictional adaptation that addresses points about the West Memphis Three trial you can experience in greater, more arresting detail in the first Paradise Lost documentary from 1996. The point of a movie like this should not be to turn over turned stones, but to address certain corners of the past where the truth is still in search of its full cinematic expression. Devil’s Knot in that sense is not a bad film, it’s merely redundant.
The film opens with promise, mind you: the camera glides over Robin Hood Hills (where the three boys’s bodies were found), with a little boy’s voice whispering that he’s the only one who knows what happened. We feel like a phantom here, floating over unhallowed ground and complicit in a dark secret. This ominousness is effective; we’re entrenched in the foreboding mysteries that are essential to this unsolved case (note: the case is technically “solved” due to the Alford pleas, but most like myself are not convinced).
Egoyan’s visual approach here stirs up vagueness and lurid mystery. But the film eventually broadens with the character introductions of one of the victim’s mothers, Pamela Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), and private investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth), and this is where Devil’s Knot starts to peel apart at the seams. Firth and Witherspoon are not the problem; it’s their detachment from the courtroom drama that imposes a noncommittal, removed quality on the film.
In theory, this could be interesting because the first Paradise Lost documentary was invested in the courtroom dynamics. Strangely, Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson’s screenplay seems to want it both ways, so the film is almost constantly middling. Dramatically, thematically, even visually. The film sometimes maintains the eeriness of the first ten minutes but then pussyfoots in the trial’s transactions and we’re left perplexed and underwhelmed.
Devil’s Knot does not settle on a consistent approach, which is the film’s fatal flaw. The screenwriters are also unable to create well-rounded characterizations. The fascinating John Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the victims, is kind of a one-dimensional hillbilly here portrayed by Canadian character-actor Kevin Durand (LOST, Cosmopolis). Other talent from Elias Koteas to Amy Ryan are present, but barely integrated in the story with dramatic conviction.
Devil’s Knot does not settle on a consistent approach, which is the film’s fatal flaw. The screenwriters are also unable to create well-rounded characterizations.
Leveritt’s 2002 book primarily focused on the trial as an act of “Satanic panic”, stating that it was sort of modern Salem witch trial where people were targeted solely for their alleged association with an unpopular form of worship. Egoyan is known to be an abstract filmmaker who examines ideas, so it would have been interesting to see him tackle this muddier side of the trial that was a subject of presumption in 1993 and is not really talked about much today: the spirituality of the Occult (even Joe Berlinger’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 engaged with aspects of the Occult in greater detail than this).
Devil’s Knot does include Vicki Hutcheson (Mireille Enos), one of the locals who claimed that she attended one of Damien’s Esbats, a Satanic feast and coven meeting, a story she eventually retracted. Her testimonial, along with her son’s (the voice that opens Devil’s Knot), is what partly led to the West Memphis Three’s conviction. The film addresses this detail accurately, but it’s at best peripheral to what eventually develops into a ham-handed courtroom procedural.
Devil’s Knot is effective in terms of tone and performance. Firth is convincing as the detective with a yarn of doubts who is unable to act on them due to the prejudices and constraints of the Arkansas judicial system. Witherspoon embodies this story’s tragic quality.
Meanwhile, Egoyan maintains the 1993 homicide’s basic mysteries by keeping the film vague and equivocal. But these qualities also reflect the screenplay’s underdevelopments and shapeless characters. The best character is in fact that mysterious black man who staggered into a fast food restaurant on the night of the murders decked in blood. Just before the police arrived, he ran off and no one saw him again. That thought sends a chill down our spine, even though ironically Devil’s Knot comes off ultimately as spineless.
[notification type=”star”]50/100 ~ MEDIOCRE. Devil’s Knot is a dramatically underwhelming take on the West Memphis Three trial from outside the realm of documentary. The film maintains an eerie ominous tone, but Egoyan’s direction is too noncommittal in its efforts, unsure of whether to push the film’s mystery trappings or stay locked in on the courtroom dynamics. The results are middling. [/notification]