Directed by Atom Egoyan
I first became aware of the case of “The West Memphis Three” back in the 90s when HBO aired a trilogy of engrossing documentaries, beginning with Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. Graphic, unflinching, chilling and absolutely riveting pieces of true crime, these docs stand unparalleled in telling the almost unbelievable story of the indictment and trial of three nonconformist teenage boys based on questionable evidence in the case of a disgusting and horrific triple-homicide.
Small-town Arkansas law enforcement believed the killings were ritualistic, and so the “weird kids” who listened to heavy metal music, were into Wicca, and liked horror movies were the natural suspects and inevitable convicts. It took many years to prove their innocence – and another documentary, 2012’s West of Memphis produced by Peter Jackson – and see them finally freed.
It’s a compelling case, so much so that fiction just can’t compare. But, this is Hollywood and so of course there’s a movie.
The cast, featuring Oscar winners Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, plus the likes of Bruce Greenwood, Elias Koteas, Dane DeHann and Stephen Moyer, should have served only to tighten the knot. Scripted by horror heavy-hitters Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris, one should think no punches would be pulled. The fact that Atom Egoyan is the director (and one of my personal faves, with flicks such as Where the Truth Lies and Chloe) should have made it that much better.
However, the film is not better than the documentaries.
While the movie is meant to focus on a different aspect of the murders – much like Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam was only a little bit about David Berkowitz and a lot about the collective panic of NYC’s citizens – it just doesn’t tell enough of the story to be as gripping as it could be. Devil’s Knot centers mostly on one of the victim’s mothers, Pam Hobbs (Witherspoon), and is for all intents and purposes a courtroom drama fixed on Ron Lax (Firth), the tenacious but ultimately unsuccessful private investigator working for the defense.
Having said all that, as a movie unto itself and taking nothing else into consideration, it’s good. I found the performances to be strong and the general atmosphere of horror, tension and intense grief competently portrayed. Devil’s Knot is a decent timewaster, but if you really want the details, check out the four fascinating documentaries already in existence.
3 out of 5