Dir. Atom Egoyan
Screenplay by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson, adapted from the Mara Leveritt book
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth, Dane DeHaan, James Hamrick, Collette Wolfe, Stephen Moyer, Kevin Durand, Bruce Greenwood, Mireille Enos
There are better movies about the West Memphis Three than Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot, the Canadian director’s first feature film since 2009’s Chloe, like the documentary trilogy Paradise Lost and Amy Berg’s doc West of Memphis (available on Netflix Canada).
I saw Devil’s Knot at the Festival Nouveau Cinéma in the fall, with Egoyan on hand to take questions from the audience after the screening. Someone asked him about the documentaries and whether Egoyan thought his dramatization of the events would add anything to the story of the West Memphis Three. The eloquent Egoyan said that many people would be discovering the story for the first time with Devil’s Knot.
Even though Paradise Lost 3 was nominated for an Oscar and West of Memphis a BAFTA, I hate to agree with Egoyan. Docs just don’t have the same draw as “drama starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth.” But anyone interested in the story of Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin owes it to him and herself to watch the aforementioned documentaries. Devil’s Knot is very well acted, with Reese Witherspoon better than she’s been in a long time, and has some great cinematography, like all Egoyan’s films, but it’s too interested in providing the most simple and neat narrative possible.
Three boys go missing, their bodies later found in a creek, tied up and mangled. The town – its people and police force – is quick to suspect three teenagers with questionable past behaviour who also might be devil worshippers of committing the gruesome murders. Bingo. It’s too easy, and it doesn’t take long for the search for justice and the truth to turn into a witch hunt against the three teens, Damien Echols (James Hamrick), Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether) and Jessie Misskelley (Kristopher Higgins).
Ron Lax (Colin Firth), a private investigator from Memphis, Tenn., makes his way to West Memphis, Ark., to offer his services pro bono to Echols. Lax isn’t as convinced as everyone else in West Memphis that Echols is guilty, much to the chagrin of the people in West Memphis who, suffice to say, don’t take a liking to him. He persists with the help of his assistant Glori (Collette Wolfe) even when Echols is uncooperative. Witherspoon plays Pam Hobbs, the mother of one of the three murdered boys. She’s torn between her desire for swift justice and, later, her doubts about Echols’s culpability. It’s Witherspoon’s best work in years. (She’ll be in four movies slated for a 2014 release, three of which are directed by Canadians: Devil’s Knot, Philippe Falardeau’s The Good Lie and Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild. She’ll also be in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice.)
Devil’s Knot also stars Dane DeHaan who was much more unknown when the film was shot. DeHaan was in Kill Your Darlings and the excellent underrated Place Beyond the Pines last year, and he’ll be Harry Osborn in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 this summer. Stephen Moyer is the attorney for the prosecution, Bruce Greenwood is the judge and the underused but wonderful Mireille Enos plays the mother of the boy who claims to have seen Echols and co. near the crime scene at the time of the murder.
In the end, Devil’s Knot is a speculative and highly dramatized version of the events that happened in 1993 West Memphis. At its best, it’s a courtroom drama that doesn’t break new ground. It’s barely revelatory if you’re even a little familiar with the cases of the West Memphis Three.
Devil’s Knot opens in Montreal on Jan. 24.