The entire case against them was based on a forced confession, and their love of horror movies, Slayer, and Stephen King. Their story resonated with a lot of people all over the world. Anyone who’s ever been called a “freak” or any other misguided insult because of their taste in music, movies, and clothes could relate to them. Especially Echols, their supposed ring leader who allegedly coerced them into committing human sacrifice. He always seemed a little too smart for his own good. In the courtroom, he showed surprising defiance in the face of authority, even with his life on the line.
The 20 years of injustice wrought upon these three men was extensively chronicled in the Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries – three compelling films that kept Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley in the public consciousness and, according to some, had a lot to do with their release in August 2011. In 2012, a comprehensive documentary called West of Memphis was released, which covered everything from the initial trial to their release following a controversial “Alford Plea.”
Those four films covered every angle of the case through its two decade history, so is there any need for a dramatization of it? Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot attempts to argues that there is, but the film provides no new insight or weight to the saga of the West Memphis 3. There’s just no reason this film should exist.
Devil’s Knot features a cast of big names, including Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth, but wastes their talents on what can be considered a standard courtroom drama. It has the vibe of a television movie and does a lackluster job capturing the hysteria that consumed that small town of fanatics. The four documentaries do a far better job evoking the drama and frustration of the trial while exhaustively covering the angles. Devil’s Knot fails to do pretty much anything except cover ground already combed before. The various trials and appeals of the West Memphis 3 is one of the most vexing and obscene cases of injustices in recent history, yet none of this is captured in Egoyan’s film.
Even viewed as a primer on the West Memphis 3 for folks who aren’t familiar with the case, Devil’s Knot works poorly. When instances of “lost” evidence and flawed witnesses appear, they feel very haphazard and may be confusing for the unacquainted. For example, the information concerning the woman who made a deal with the cops if she’d have her son deliver a false confession was a major blemish during the first trial, but here it’s presented in a manner out of step with the rest of the film.
The bits of fiction thrown in for emotional effect are cheap and laughable. In one scene, Witherspoon, who plays Pam Hobbs, the mother of one of the murdered boys, is hugged by a group of schoolchildren. Gimme a break. Firth plays a legal aide attempting to clear the teens’ names and while his character lacks depth, we are told by his ex-wife that “he becomes obsessed with his cases” and that he has to defend them because “no one else will.” It’s some of the most cliche lawyer “characterizations” ever.
It’s a damn shame the cast isn’t given some ripe material to work with, especially the supporting cast that boasts the likes of Elias Koteas and Bruce Greenwood. The mighty Kevin Durand (Lost) is perfectly cast as John Mark Byers, the bible thumping looney tune who gifted a knife to the Paradise Lost documentary crew. So what if there was some human blood on the knife, he doesn’t know how it got there!
Devil’s Knot is simply an unnecessary movie that rehashes material that’s been extensively covered before in films, books, and television. It closes on title cards that explain the direction the appeals and investigation went in after the initial trial, teasing the audience with material far more interesting then what they just sat through.
Despite Devil’s Knot being completely useless, it does reinforce the saddest thing about the whole saga: the real killer is still out there.