The injustice perpetrated against The West Memphis Three—three teenagers who in 1994 were wrongly convicted of the brutal slayings of three young boys in Memphis, Arkansas—was powerfully revealed in the 1996 documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky proceed to keep interest in the case alive with their two sequels, and the accused were finally released from jail in 2011. Berlinger and Sinofsky did the hard work and compelling filmmaking that captured the drama and tragedy of the case. Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot takes that hard work and turns it into a based-on-true-events movie that’s not only pointless, but also exploitative and disrespectful.
In 1993, three eight-year-old boys—Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers—were found dead, stripped naked, and mutilated in Devil’s Den in Robin Hood Hills. The police, frantic to quickly close the case due to public outrage over the crime, concocted dubious evidence to arrest Damien Echols (James Hamrick), Jessie Misskelley Jr. (Kristopher Higgins), and Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether). The teenage boys were seen as outsiders due to their love of heavy metal music and perceived interest in the occult. Devil’s Knot looks at the case from the perspective of Steve Branch’s mother, Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), and private investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth), who offered his services pro bono to the defense.
From there, the movie is nothing more than a dramatization of facts that are rearranged, stripped down, and given a celebrity polish. There is absolutely nothing in the movie that can’t be gathered from Paradise Lost. It should be noted that Paradise Lost is not a boring movie. It’s incredibly captivating, which is what brought national attention to the West Memphis Three in the first place, kept them in the public’s eye, in the eyes of sympathetic celebrities, and in the eyes of the filmmakers behind Devil’s Knot. Screenwriters Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson attempt to steal the drama from a better movie, but only screw it up with their awful script.
The screenplay’s calculation seems to be that focusing on Pam will provide the emotional connection, and Ron will bring up all the flaws in the police investigation and the trial. Instead, both stories are short-changed and dumbed down. The Ron plotline still wouldn’t bring anything new to the story of the West Memphis Three, but at least it would have the momentum of “discovery” (i.e. facts new to the character and anyone unfamiliar with the 20-year-old case). If the movie focused on Pam, it would need to be stretched out beyond the first Paradise Lost, and show her growing unease and suspicion of her husband, who eventually turned out to be the likely perpetrator but was never found guilty or even formally accused. Condensed inside the events of Devil’s Knot, which goes to the end of the trial, most of what we see of Pam is her grieving over her son.
It’s an incredibly exploitative decision where the thinking seems to be, “Sure, Paradise Lost showed us tons of information, and we’re even going to do shot-for-shot recreations of the news footage seen in the film, but the documentary doesn’t intrude on Pam Hobbs’ private suffering. That’s where it’s going be our movie’s time to shine!” If Pam had an actual arc rather than discovering an occasional clue casting doubt on her husband, this grief may work. Instead, it’s an interstitial to the investigation that only paints shallow, glossy portraits of characters and events.
Echols, Misskelley Jr., and Baldwin were convicted on a fiction. The prosecution and the people of a Bible Belt town conjured up the imagery of three Satanists preying on innocent boys. It was a fiction predicated on superficial things like music preference and clothing style. Devil’s Knot commits the same sin by creating a fiction that disrespects the truth of the real events. I don’t know if it’s possible to make a feature film based on the West Memphis Three’s saga, but I know that film shouldn’t have groan-worthy dialogue like a waitress telling Ron Lax, “If you don’t help those boys, nobody will.” You know, except for the documentary filmmakers that helped those boys.
Devil’s Knot is a crappy TV movie but with Oscar-winning actors. The cast is filled with talented people, but it seems like they all joined because the case was important rather than the quality of the script. I’m particularly surprised that Egoyan directed considering that his film The Sweet Hereafter is one of the most gut-wrenching films about parents coping with the death of their children. Devil’s Knot wants to pass itself off as serious and concerned with the injustice perpetrated upon the West Memphis Three and the parents of the murdered boys. The West Memphis Three’s story deserved to be told, and I’m grateful it came from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky rather than this predatory, opportunistic, vapid, and shameful excuse for a drama.
For all of our TIFF 2013 coverage, click here. Here are links to all of my TIFF 2013 reviews: