Atom Egoyan, the once-again prolific Canadian filmmaker, seems to be having an ongoing fixture on ripped-from-the-headline sagas about crimes perpetrated against children. Only a few weeks ago, he’s unveiled in Cannes Film Festival the underwhelming, if preposterously concocted, The Captive – a film about child abduction that does disservice to the potentially nerve-wracking subject, thanks to the screenplay’s glaring contrivances and the director’s clumsy execution. Now, just reaching UK shores from Toronto Film Festival is his previous feature Devil’s Knot, another narrative about the atrocities committed against poor, defenseless tots but one that admittedly drags more socio-historical baggage and heavyweight publicity since this is first feature-length dramatisation of the true-to-life West Memphis Three case that’s been swimming in and out of America’s public consciousness for the last two decades. It’s an undeniably horrifying tale, and anyone who has followed the case’s misjudged proceedings and seen Amy Berg’s extraordinarily exhaustive and detailed documentary West of Memphis last year would attest that this is a story that deserves an expansive cinematic canvas, wide enough to fit all its huge, tragic scope.
Under this colossal case, elements of crime procedural, psychological thriller and courtroom drama are siphoned along with studies of loss, family grief, social horror, mass hysteria and explosive indictments on miscarriage of justice, American’s corrupt legal system and religious fundamentalism, which all collaboratively shoved three teenagers into prison just because they listened to heavy metal music, worshipped Nirvana, read Stephen King novels and dabbled with the occult. It’s basically Salem Witch Trial 2.0, with the Bible belt community sharpening their pitchforks and scapegoating the easiest targets for collective damnation rather than allowing rationality and justice do their work. Devil‘s Knot comes close to channeling some sense of fury in the hysterical condemnation of the three purported suspects Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin, but it largely sticks to convention and connect-the-dots method of storytelling instead of bravely adopting some artistic license to fully bring the outrage to the fore.
Egoyan has a long list of details to marshal, and along with screenwriters Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson, these guys are burdened with their self-appointed challenge of cramming all information under two hours of running-time while retaining the story’s power and relevance. The result is a well-meant, if a tad stale, reconstruction – retreading much of Berg’s output (and utilised the three-part HBO’s Paradise Lost as invaluable research, I believe), rendering Egoyan’s version somewhat tautological. It also doesn’t help that the angle Egoyan chooses to tell is the one that’s far too well-publicised and explored, ending on an ambiguous note when things just get more interesting and mysterious.
When Devil’s Knot genuinely wants to delve into the case, portraying the scarred people at the heart of this nightmare, it gives us a respectably intimate drama of grieving families and crusading lawyers who all try make sense of the grief. Reese Witherspoon as grieving mother Pam Hobbs is convincingly frazzled, albeit Oscar bait-y, and Colin Firth is strangely cast yet immediately lending some quiet, grizzled gravitas to his compassionate and competent big-shot lawyer Ron Lax, who volunteered to be pro bono as a behind-the-scenes investigator – but these two central performances barely register in a patchwork movie that tailors in near-distracting cameos left-and-right – from the suitably effective (James Hamrick as purportedly Satanic teen suspect Damien Echols and a standout Kevin Durand chewing every scene he’s in as the God-verse-spitting John Mark Byers) to the serviceable (Dane DeHaan, Alessandro Nivola, Elias Koteas) and those who are poorly sketched and jettisoned to the side (Amy Ryan, Stephen Moyer and Mereille Enos, who appears as a proverbial white-trash and nothing more). Throughout the proceedings, Egoyan name-checks everyone and signposts dates, incidents and evidents, just in case you get lost in the muddle, give up, leave the cinema, go home and watch Berg’s terrific West of Memphis instead. You’d somehow wish Egoyan tackled this by the balls and give Devil’s Knot a unique perspective, rather than the obvious front façade we’ve already seen before.