When Atom Egoyan approached Academy Award-winner Colin Firth to play Ron Lax, the real-life private investigator who assisted lawyers defending three teenagers charged with a multiple child murder in West Memphis, Ark., in the 1990s, the director knew he was bringing the actor a peculiar challenge – playing a man who can’t make a difference. No matter how much doubt Lax raised about the guilt of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., the machinery was in motion: Somebody had to be found guilty for a heinous crime. But Firth, who had worked with the renowned Toronto director on Where the Truth Lies, rose to the challenge, and agreed to appear in Devil’s Knot. At the Toronto International Film Festival last September, the actor talked about taking on one of the more counterintuitive assignments of his career.
The details of the case were new to you at the time; the West Memphis Three case is notorious in North America, but not in England. What was your initial reaction to it?
There was a conflicting double reaction. One of which was indignation and shock. Shock at the crime and the way everything was handled. But also a sense of it being all too familiar. This takes place in different forms everywhere, and the reasons for it are clear. It’s easy to make facile judgements of the people who mishandled it, but nevertheless the film does not make glib statements. You can really see how it happens.
And it doesn’t happen only in Arkansas.
There are equivalents in my own country, endlessly. When there’s a climate of fear, people look for answers and they want resolution, they want satisfaction, they want justice, they want to make sense of things. Then you get people whose job it is to provide that. Law enforcement and the judicial system, egged on by a media, which stokes up the temperature. You get a climate where people try to fast forward to some kind of understanding or resolution, which has not been acquired properly.
Not the best climate for due process.
What Atom has done is to let the questions breathe again. I think that’s the role of my character, who on the face of it doesn’t seem to achieve much. You want your detective to get his guy. That’s not what happens here. Ron’s the guy who says, ‘We cannot pretend these questions have been answered when they haven’t.’
But that makes him a kind of helpless bystander. He may be right, but no one’s listening.
I voiced this to Atom. I said, ‘What do I play?’ Because you look for how a character takes on obstacles. How does he deal with things? We find out if someone is brave or cowardly. We find out if he is compassionate or brutal. And we start to identify with the character by how he deals with things. Then we start to love our character because he achieves that. But what about a guy who’s just paralyzed all the time? You want me to do 90 minutes of frustration? How many shades of frustration have I got? But Atom’s curiosity is infectious. I never felt confident, but I think he rather enjoyed the fact that my frustration and my paralysis so perfectly echoed that character.
Still, we expect movies to provide answers and resolutions, don’t we? It’s kind of remarkable to make a movie that takes the opposite approach, that says sometimes the need for answers tramples the truth.
It’s also remarkable that he has allowed us to find it understandable, that that all happens. This isn’t about a bunch of hysterical witch hunters. If we cast law enforcement and the prosecutors and the judge and everybody as one-dimensional witch finders, we’d be making exactly the same mistake as they were making with Damien, Jason and Jessie. That’s what Ron Lax tried to do: investigate, keep questions alive, not sensationalize and force solutions into place and clear out any evidence which makes your resolution inconvenient. But this has been going on forever and it goes on everywhere. This case is both universal and specific. That struck me. I just thought there’s something terribly, terribly familiar about this.
This interview has been edited and condensed.