The notorious case of the West Memphis Three has already been the subject of four lengthy documentaries. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost trilogy, made over the years the case was progressing, and Amy Berg and Peter Jackson’s astonishing, West of Memphis from 2012, which seemed to tell as definitive a version of the story as could be told. So is there any need at all for another film just two years later? Well quite possibly, as for the first time, Devil’s Knot is attempting to dramatize the case. There’s certainly a good deal of potential for a gripping thriller to be made from the case, and a feature film with some big stars could appeal to a wider audience and bring yet more attention to the real-life injustice that inspired it. Unfortunately, Devil’s Knot is not that film.
As is it, Devil’s Knot will probably appear more interesting to those who have no familiarity with the real life case whatsoever, as nearly all the ground it covers has been examined in greater depth before. In case anyone’s unfamiliar, in 1993, three young boys were found murdered near the town of West Memphis, Arkansas. The deeply religious community felt that the shocking crime was part of a ‘Satanic Ritual’. Three local teenagers, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. who wore black and listened to heavy metal were arrested, accused of being Satanists, and charged with the crime. Law enforcement got a confession out of Misskelley (who was mentally impaired and later recanted) after a long interrogation and two were sentenced to life in prison while Echols was sentenced to death. They continued to claim their innocence and were ultimately released on an unusual plea bargain after serving 18 years in jail each.
Devil’s Knot chooses not to focus on all the many later developments that appeared in the years subsequent, and gives its attention almost entirely to the initial arrest and trial. This feels like its main downfall, there’s a wealth of fascinating material it could cover that it relegates to a series of title cards at the end. It also makes an unusual choice for its lead characters. Reese Witherspoon plays the devastated mother of one of the victims, while Colin Firth (sporting a Southern accent that isn’t bad but sounds odd coming from him) is a private investigator who donates his services to the defense. Neither seems like an obvious or particularly appropriate choice for the film’s focus and really, it perhaps should have tried to be more of an ensemble piece (which it starts to resemble in its latter half). The actors cast as the West Memphis three all look part, but we don’t get to know the characters well enough.
Canadian director Atom Egoyan seems like a good choice to tell this story, he’s made some excellent films in the past and even covered some similar ground in The Sweet Hereafter. He conveys the events in a workmanlike fashion, respectfully recreating moments from the documentaries without ever really bringing any flair to the table. Only a handful of images from the film stand out, like the eerie initial discovery of the bodies.
For those unfamiliar, Devil’s Knot may come across as a messy, unfocused legal thriller with only occasional nuggets of interest. For those who’ve read up on the case or seen the documentaries, it’s a dry, unnecessary re-telling of events we’ve seen before, made all the more disappointing as we know there are all these fascinating elements to the story that are never fully utilized. It’s not completely worthless as the story is still a highly relevant one, and there is in fact one piece of information in the film that I hadn’t seen before, but there’s absolutely nothing Devil’s Knot has to say that wasn’t said much better in West of Memphis. If you have any interest in this case, that’s the film to see.