DEVIL'S KNOT Review

There has been so much made of the trial that Devil's Knot dramatizes that the film itself almost seems irrelevant at this point. If you've seen any of the three Paradise Lost documentaries or for a more complete look at the eighteen years after what happens in Devil's Knot, last years excellent documentary West of Memphis, than you already know everything there is to know about this trial with ample amounts of theories and extraneous evidence to boot, but while West of Memphis encapsulated this entire ordeal from beginning to present when it turned from a trial about the murder of three little boys to a witch hunt for three other boys and the eventual plight to free them from the prison cells that constantly reminded them of the actions they were wrongfully accused of, Devil's Knot is simply looking to see what made everything go so wrong from the inception of this incident and more importantly, give a voice to the often forgotten victims and their families. The film is very open to interpretation in terms of what avenue you prefer to travel when it comes to this well-publicized case, but it certainly lays inclinations to what the current state of the case would best indicate. With such a sprawling story, a large cast of characters and multiple perspectives from which you could approach this it always seemed the choice to go with a documentary as far as chronicling the events of this case was the most efficient thing to do, but with Mara Leveritt's 2002 crime book of the same name proving an interesting and well-read piece of source material it was unavoidable that at some point a narrative feature might be attempted that pulled from the well that has seemed to officially run dry. The interesting question here is whether or not the film might be more highly looked upon were there not so many other films surrounding this same set of events because this film, on the most basic of principles, is still engaging due to the horrible circumstances under which these murders happened and the horribly botched job that the police did with the investigation that, when paired with the fine, but admittedly passive performance of actors at the caliber of Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, you are bound to find a few things making it worth a look.

Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon) is consoled by her husband Terry (Alessandro Nivola) after a court hearing.
What Devil's Knot has in being a full on dramatization (or one long re-enactment) and not just a documentary that steps through all of the facts and presents them in a fashion where each audience member can make up their own mind is the advantage of placing its audience right in the middle of things, coming face to face with the complexities of the relationships, of the environment, of the pressure-essentially it has the unique opportunity to place you purely in the moment; something that, in the documentaries, has only been referenced to or looked back on in a fashion of it being in the past. The most chilling moments of Devil's Knot come, not from the incompetence of the detectives or the look on Damien Echols (James Hamrick) face as they read his initial sentence, but when Stevie Branch (Jet Jurgensmeyer) is pulled from his watery grave or when his mother, Pam Hobbs (Witherspoon), reacts to the news that her son has been found dead. These are moments that those who can remember the events when they actually happened in 1993 likely saw clips of on the news and for those that have followed the case through the news and documentaries and have seen the crime scene photos time and time again know there is something distinctly affecting about seeing these small moments in time, these moments that would come to define and represent so much more in the grand scheme of a town and other peoples lives that it is impactful in a way pictures or raw footage from the search parties cannot be, especially when rendered by such present performers and precise detail. That is what is so interesting about this film though because even though I sat back and was engulfed in what was going on, marveling at the way in which director Atom Egoyan and his team had reconstructed not only an authentic sense of the early-90's but the looks of these real-life characters I'd seen in the documentaries was fascinating for its own reasons, while all the while still feeling rather stale. Naturally, the details of what actually happened on the evening of May 5, 1993 are still very much up for debate and thus cause enough for those interested in the subject to seek out anything new that might cover more ground on this subject and the horrific events. The question is, has the ground that Devil's Knot chooses to cover been turned into dirt?

What it tries to do to differentiate itself is take on the case from the most outside and level-headed of perspectives while still remaining directly connected to the crime and the courtroom drama. In doing this (and I don't know how Leveritt's book is laid out) they choose to focus on Ron Lax (Colin Firth) who is a private investigator that, after seeing the events of the missing boys, the discovery of their bodies and then the hasty charges brought against Echols, Jessie Misskelley (Kristopher Higgins) and Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether) that accused them of being part of a satanic cult due to the sexual and violent nature of the crimes and the fact they were seeking the death penalty for teenagers, decided it was more or less his moral obligation to get involved as it became more and more clear that this wasn't as much about finding the actual person or persons who committed these crimes, but bringing in someone (even the most obvious of someones) to take the blame for it so that the people of the community might feel safe and that those involved in the investigation may further their political careers by so successfully closing out such a high profile case. It is a noble action to take and as played by Firth we relate to Lax on an endearing level and even an admirable one in that among all of the hoopla and mass hysteria surrounding this case he was able to see what so many others were blind to because of the shocking nature of the crime and the gut-reaction of needing to blame someone. He was able to look into the future and see how this could affect our society in the long run and the fact I am even still writing about it twenty years later shows that he was right, that this wasn't something you turn your head at and say, "oh, well," but instead that it truly defined the judicial system in our country and undermined the whole ideology that justice should be honorable and that what was happening and going to happen to these three boys was not remotely justified or by any means honorable. These frustrating feelings, themes and tension are all brought to somewhat fresh light by the impressive ensemble Egoyan has assembled. In the smallest of roles you have actors who are worthy of so much more, case in point being Amy Ryan who is literally in one scene as Ron's ex-wife while others featured are Dane DeHaan, Mireille Enos, Kevin Durand, Elias Koteas, Stephen Moyer and Bruce Greenwood among other well-known character actors and familiar faces.

Jessie Misskelley (Kristopher Higgins), Damien Echols (James Hamrick) and Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether)
pose as the West Memphis Three in Devil's Knot.
Beyond all of this though, what Devil's Knot really brings to the table beyond the inherent drama of being present in those small moments due to its fictionalized nature is the prospect of allowing more focus to be spent on the victims and the families of the victims which, if you've seen West of Memphis, might make for an all the more interesting film. The downfall of the film is that it tries to do too much and in doing so takes the sole focus off of the more interesting parts of the story surrounding the night that Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore disappeared. For the first half or so of the film we focus solely on Witherspoon's Pam (though we get intermittent introductions and updates to Firth's character and why it was important to see him bid on a piece of furniture for $21,000 still escapes me) and how she is married to somewhat of a creeper named Terry (Alessandro Nivola) who winks oddly at his step-daughter when he gets home from work and refers to Stevie as "the boy" rather than by his name when he inquires about his location to Pam. Even these slight details that Egoyan and his actors incorporate into the film breathe a certain air of intrigue around this story we thought we knew so well and yet when Terry picks Pam up from her shift as a waitress the night her son disappeared and he doesn't seem frantic and the fact he didn't come pick her up earlier to help him look because he was really getting worried is paid no attention to and not dissected any further. The most recent example I can think of to compare source material and feature film incarnation to would be Lincoln where instead of attempting to tell a cradle to the grave story about honest Abe, Spielberg took a specific time and set of events that occurred in the mans service as President and highlighted them in a single feature and I think if that same kind of mentality might have been applied to the West Memphis Three case and in how Egoyan and his screenwriters Paul Harris Boardman (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and Scott Derrickson (director of Emily Rose and Sinister) approached this picture knowing the history the case had with the media and its at least four documentaries than they might have come up with a more successful film with more reason to be seen and not dismissed so quickly. The fact that they didn't leaves us with a film that is solid in seemingly every aspect, yet leaves you yearning for something more, a deeper connection to these people you feel you know and the tragedy they are still dealing with.