Though the Bible Belt of the American South is far from home turf for Canadian director Atom Egoyan, the subject of Devil’s Knot certainly seems like his kind of drama. Based on the much-chronicled 1993 murders of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark., it touches on central motifs – the death of children, a traumatized community, competing versions of the truth and the struggle to find healing – in such Egoyan films as Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter.
At the same time, the sheer complexity of this story and the mountains of media information it has produced make any kind of distillation a daunting task. The shocking murders and the conviction of three Goth teenagers for an alleged satanic killing have proved irresistible to the media for more than two decades. There have been four documentaries, numerous television segments, celebrity concerts, a half-dozen books (including fan fiction) and a tribute album to raise money for the accused. To date, each new account of the crime and trial has tended to find a new suspect and a new alleged cover-up. The last two documentaries – Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011) and the Peter Jackson-produced West of Memphis (2013) – reached a natural conclusion with the release of the three defendants, Jason Baldwin, the developmentally delayed Jessie Misskelley, who both faced life sentences, and the alleged ringleader, Damien Echols, who was on death row.
The challenge for Egoyan and screenwriters Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) is to provide fresh insight into this story. Or, with the help of Oscar-winners Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth, bring a new kind of attention and nuance to this adversarial story. Do they succeed? The answer is: not enough. While Devil’s Knot is restrained and respectful, it also feels earnest and cautious, and too much like a movie of the week to capture the sprawling complexity of the real events.
Paying relatively little attention to the media circus around the defendants, the script focuses on two characters, Ron Lax (Firth), a Memphis private investigator, and Pam Hobbs (Witherspoon), the mother of one of victims, Stevie Branch. Lax was a real person (he died in October of last year), but, as portrayed by Firth, he feels like a dramatic device, providing us with an impersonal point of view in the case.
Newly divorced, with a chipper female assistant who calls him “boss,” Lax is a lone-wolf private investigator out of an airport novel. Sensing the prosecutors are rushing for a conviction, he offers his services pro bono to Damien Echols’s defence team. We watch with him as he pores over the confessions and evidence that the defence team is too busy to scrutinize; while this is a convenient way to show the confusion of confessions and false leads, Firth is an odd fit here. Repressed and terse, he’s playing a fish out of water, even though the character is in his own back pond. When the local waitress where he eats his post-divorce meals flirts shamelessly with him, Firth looks as though the Southern cooking she’s serving gives him dyspepsia.
In contrast, Witherspoon, a native Southerner, inhabits this world effortlessly, down to her head shakes and feathered hair tips. Though only moderately deglamorized, she inhabits the role of Pam Hobbs, a waitress who, after losing her child, became lost in a world of pain and medication. The scenes between her and her husband, Terry Hobbs (Alessandro Nivola), are the most compellingly tense in the movie. (Terry Hobbs is identified as the favoured suspect in the latest two documentaries.) Without telegraphing information, Nivola portrays Hobbs as a violent, secretive man. In a typically Egoyan moment, he chastises his wife for not acting appropriately on television. No one here knows how to behave, but, as the film makes clear, the media’s cameras are everywhere.
The more broadly drawn performances include one from Mireille Enos, a fine actor best known for roles of maternal concern (the TV series The Killing and the Brad Pitt movie World War Z), who offers a vivid turn as the blowsy police informant, Vicki Hutcherson. (Like Witherspoon, Enos was raised in Texas and gets the Southern nuances.) Kevin Durand makes an impression as John Mark Byers, another stepfather of one of the victims, who comes across as a scary hillbilly clown. If you have seen the documentaries, though, you’ll know that the real people they portray are stranger than these portrayals. That’s a central dilemma of the scrupulously well-intentioned but emotionally straitjacketed Devil’s Knot. Fiction is obliged to be plausible, while real life has no such constraints.