The story of the 'West Memphis Three' has passed into modern folklore by now. It's the one about the three Arkansas teenagers - Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley - sentenced to prison for the murder of three much younger boys. The verdict was so suspect that it became a media sensation, heralding four major documentaries, and drawing the interest of such showbiz gadflies as Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder. The "killers," it seemed, had been sentenced not because of any compelling evidence, but because they listened to heavy metal music and one of them, Echols, wore black and had an interest in Wicca. Many years later, a DNA sample placed one of the victims' own fathers at the scene. This discovery played a part in Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley being granted their freedom, but not exonerated.
Devil's Knot, Atom Egoyan's stirring account of the case, hits all of the points familiar to anyone who has followed the story. It's still perplexing, this mess of conflicting testimonies, unfounded reports of satanic rituals, lost blood samples, perjury, bribed witnesses, clumsy cops and incompetent judges. Egoyan doesn't add much of anything new, although he does try to focus on the victims, which the documentary coverage tended to overlook in favor focusing on the gullibility and paranoia of a small town of religious zealots who seriously believed a satanic cult lurked in their woods.
If you feel you've seen enough of the West Memphis Three's story and see no reason to watch the movie, let me impress you with one fact: there are moments in Devil's Knott so horrific and heartbreaking that you may momentarily forget the documentaries. This is especially true in the early scenes, when the victims' bodies are discovered in a muddy pond, and placed side by side on the bank like a trio of small, dirty mannequins. I liked how the detectives dredging the pond were saddened by their discoveries. It's hard to not be moved by these scenes.
The large cast works well enough. Colin Firth is solid if a bit dour as a well-meaning investigator, and the rest of the company look more or less like the characters they've been hired to portray. What hurts the movie, even more than British Firth attempting an Arkansas accent, is that this epic story is crammed into a two hour slot. The result feels rushed, with the actors unable to develop their characters. The characters seem to race by, just long enough to give us an idea of what the person might have been like. In a way, it feels like a West Memphis pageant, rather than a drama. Kevin Durand, for instance, captures the weird mannerisms that made John Mark Byers one of the most intriguing figures of the HBO documentaries - you may remember him as a victim's dad who practiced shooting at pumpkins while delivering fire and brimstone monologues. Egoyan moves Byers to a minor role here, which is disappointing. For a while, Byers seemed as guilty as anybody (which may have been propaganda cooked up by the documentary makers) but in Devil's Knot, he's just another local eccentric.
It's also disappointing that the West Memphis Three are almost incidental to the movie. In the documentaries, much was made of Misskelley's hole-filled confession, and how he had likely been coerced by police. Here, the coercion doesn't seem particularly dramatic. Incidentally, Misskelley and Baldwin served as executive producers on the movie. Echols, the only one of the three who spent time on death row, kept his distance. He allegedly didn't like the script, or the way he was portrayed. As played by James Hamrick, the Echols of Devil's Knot is cryptic, but not fully formed. None of the West Memphis Three are portrayed with any depth. My guess is that Egoyan is not particularly interested in character studies, but is more intrigued by the reactions of the town, and how the murders cast a long shadow over the community.
Egoyan, working from a script by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson, sheds a little more light on a local character who drove an ice cream truck and had a fascination with one of the victims. Was this fellow, played with creepy perfection by Dane DeHaan, involved with a mysterious man who wandered into a local restaurant covered in blood on the night of the killing? And were they both linked to the dad with the ubiquitous DNA?
Somehow, maybe because Firth's pensive moments drag it down, or maybe because the story is too familiar to us, the movie loses traction near the end. Compared to the beauty and strangeness of the early scenes, when Paul Sarossy's cinematography made the woods feel as deep and unfathomable as the story itself, the courtroom scenes are flat and undramatic. The angry mobs outside the courthouse never quite feel angry enough - Egoyan was raised in Western Canada, and I wonder if the ugliness of a small town Arkansas mob guided by religious fervor was just beyond his reach. These scenes needed more frenzy, more hate. The crowd in the movie mills around like cranky customers at the local DMV. When Hamrick as Echols blows the onlookers a kiss, he looks like a high school punk being lead to detention, not a man on trial for murder.
There is one performance that makes up for any of the movie's shortcomings, and that's Reese Witherspoon as Pam Hobbs. Not much time has passed since Witherspoon was playing snotty schoolgirls and dizzy blonds, but she's entirely believable here as a frumpy, middle-aged mother dealing with a personal tragedy. Her breakdown when her son's body is discovered is harrowing. Egoyan smartly shoots it from a distance, for being too close to her agony would have been unbearable. The aftermath, as she seems to lose her mind in grief, even bringing an old homework assignment to her son's teacher to be graded, feels painfully realistic. It leads to my favorite moment of the movie, when members of her son's class instinctively rise from their desks and approach her. An instinct tells these kids that this woman is hurting. They gather around her and awkwardly hug her. It reminded me of scenes in nature, when chimps or elephants show signs of solidarity. Witherspoon stands still, not sure about this display of warmth in a world that had unexpectedly turned so cold.