When it comes to the West Memphis Three, you'd think there wouldn't be much left for a filmmaker to say. After all, their case has been the subject of HBO's three award-winning Paradise Lost documentaries, as well as the feature doc West of Memphis, released earlier this year. Not to mention several books. Collectively, those projects have chronicled, in gruelling detail, the trial, conviction and eventual release of a trio of working-class teenagers for the murder of three eight-year-old boys who had been stripped naked, hogtied and mutilated in a hardscrabble Arkansas town on a spring night in 1993.
So why make a dramatic feature film based on one of those books when the real event has been so abundantly documented?
Because if you're Atom Egoyan, whose Devil's Knot makes its world premier Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival, you think that reality itself can sometimes lie, that documentaries by their nature confound and conceal, and that only drama genuinely allows truth to be addressed and revealed.
You also find the challenge of tracking that hidden truth to be irrestible.
Sitting in his photo- and poster-covered office in a coverted home in Toronto's downtown west end, the 53-year-old, Oscar-nominated director talks about what drew him to take his own run at a tale that was not only previously well-told, but that is based on a real-life story notorious for its thickets of contradictory evidence, a tragic absence of rational thinking on the part of its various protagonists, wild charges of satanic ritual and child sacrifice, and, finally, the lack of a satisfying resolution.
"I hope this is a film that you can see without having any sense of the case at all," he says. "I wanted it to be a unique, powerful drama on its own terms. What is challenging about Devil's Knot is that it moves toward a resolution while concomitantly saying that this is deeply unsettling. And in a way, what the documentaries say is, 'No, this is the resolution' – and so there's another finger being pointed. This film is not doing that. That's why I was excited about making it."
Egoyan calls his film "a parable," by which he means a neutral retelling of the story. His aim has been to resist the heavy legacy of judgment that has borne down on the West Memphis Three – and on their accusers and defenders – over the past two decades.
From the beginning, when Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols were arrested for the murder of the three young friends, a thirst for retribution and resolution gripped their small community. That, in turn, may have led to what many believe was one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in American legal history, one involving police bungling at the crime scene, indications that some witness interviews were all but coerced, and the dismissal of forensic evidence that pointed to another killer. Even the three men's return to freedom was tinged with controversy: Their 2011 release from prison required them to acknowledge that prosecutors had enough evidence to secure a conviction, even as the three were allowed to maintain their innocence.
Throughout their ordeal, meanwhile, several high-profile supporters – including Johnny Depp, Patti Smith, Natalie Maines, Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins and director Peter Jackson (who produced Amy Berg's West of Memphis) – have come to the men's defence, in many cases working to raise both publicity and funds.
Egoyan hopes that his film, based on the Mara Leveritt book, will render a telling of the story that is "as non-judgmental as possible – especially in a place where there's such a clear judgment that's passed and where that judgment has such an extraordinary effect on the lives of these three young men."
For the director, whose films have often addressed the ambiguities of mediated experience – a classic example is Speaking Parts, in which a woman becomes obsessed with an extra she spots in the background of a movie – Devil's Knot was a challenge he couldn't resist.
"How do we as viewers now watching this 20 years later, in a dramatized situation, both be in that moment but also be in the moment of looking at it with some level-headed objectivity? How do you be in that place emotionally and understand the desire for revenge, the need to explain this in a deeply religious community, where there's a strong sense that the devil is there, present at any moment, ready to … kind of play with you? How do you maintain a sense of rational distance?"
Although he immersed himself in the history of the case – travelling to West Memphis, meeting participants, sifting through video testimony – Egoyan strove to approach as coolly as possible a case long characterized by anger, hysteria and fear: to document, as it were, with drama. "Do documentaries, by the nature of their form, need to take a position?" he asks. "Can you make a documentary that has the ambiguity of a drama? I'm not so sure. I mean, Errol Morris [The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War] has obviously explored that territory, but with this cast of characters, each of them so clearly drawn, can you present something like this without having a moral judgment?"
Working from a script by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson, Egoyan assembled a cast of dramatic talent – including Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, The Killing's Mireille Enos, Elias Koteas and True Blood's Stephen Moyer – that he felt was up to the task of living in these real people's skins without projecting prior judgments on their characters.
If that instills a sense of dislocation for viewers familiar with the docs on the case, it may be partly because the performances in Devil's Knot often seem less performed than in those films. Egoyan contends that there was a "performative aspect in the [HBO] documentaries" in part because their makers were invited to West Memphis by the original trial judge, David Burnett, to get a firsthand look at how the town "deals with satanists." The last thing anyone expected was that the films would achieve such an extraordinary archiving of an entire judicial process.
"It raises very interesting issues of how people become performative in a documentary setting and maybe accentuate certain ideas of how they might want to appear. When you then create a drama, [that's something] you renegotiate: No one in Devil's Knot is trying to stake a position grounded in any other agenda than to understand the nature of this act," he says, referring to the findings of guilt in the case.
In dramatically retelling the story, Egoyan found his own disturbing answer to that question. "At a certain point, there has to be a simulation of revenge. The whole court process is about that, and I'm kind of convinced that for all the talk of satanic magic and dark practice, the only real act of magic is what the prosecutor is able to do at the end."
Make his case, in other words, instead of simply telling a tale.