The West Memphis Three have been the subject of several documentaries in recent years. The Paradise Lost trilogy by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky documented the trial of Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin, and their eventual release from prison. Amy J. Berg’s West of Memphis, co-produced by Echols himself and Peter Jackson, shed more light on the 1994 trial, and resulting prison sentence that lasted just over eighteen years.
All evidence that can be brought to light, has. Interviews have been conducted, evidence resubmitted, and it has all been thoroughly documented over the past twenty years. It would stand to reason that Atom Egoyan’s dramatic retelling of the trial would shed new light on the events that took place in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993. At the very least, that it might add a new perspective. Unfortunately, it does not.
The film starts the day Stevie Branch (Jet Jurgensmeyer), Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore went for a bike ride after school, and never came home. Things escalate quickly, as worried parents and police officers work hand in hand to coordinate search teams that begin sweeping the area for the lost boys. Their discovery is gruesome, and with that, the witch-hunt begins.
Damien Echols (James Hamrick), Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether), and Jessie Misskelley (Kristopher Higgins) are questioned, and subsequently arrested. Statements are given, evidence collected, and a case is formed against the three boys. The film winds up loosely following Stevie’s mother, Pamela Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), as well as Private Investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth). The film ends with the inevitable conviction, and nothing else.
The Paradise Lost trilogy shed new light on one of the gravest miscarriages of justice of the twentieth century. West of Memphis was well timed, generating tons of media buzz around the case with the near simultaneous release of Paradise Lost: Purgatory in 2012. Devil’s Knot feels like too little too late. In spite of being an incredibly earnest portrayal of the events that transpired, it manages to feel superfluous. It offers no new insights into the case, and no new perspectives on the trial as a whole. It simply functions as an ill-timed dramatic retelling of events, and hardly succeeds in that regard.
Witherspoon as the bereaved mother manages a single convincing moment. Her knee-buckling devastation at the news of the discovery of her son’s body is believable. Beyond that, she lacks the anguish necessary to convey the kind of loss that comes from outliving your child. As a result, the performance is grossly lacking, feeling more like a character than the portrayal of a human being.
Colin Firth’s investigator Lax is flat and monotonous. His highly affected accent is a distraction from his otherwise lackluster performance. There’s a passion and conviction lacking in the portrayal of this determined man of justice that cripples the role, making him wholly unbelievable.
Alessandro Nivola as Terry Hobbs, stepfather to Stevie Branch, is dead weight from start to finish. His performance is wooden and hollow, providing a mannequin on screen as opposed to the portrayal of a conflicted, bereaved, and possibly guilty man.
Hamrick, Meriwether, and Higgins as Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley respectively offer some of the best performances of the film, portraying their counterparts accurately. Perhaps the most convincing performance comes from Kevin Durand as John Mark Byers, father to Christopher Byers. The resemblance between Durand’s performance and archival footage of Byers is uncanny.
In spite of all that Durand has to offer, his performance is rendered borderline comical due to the film’s style. Every frame is shot meticulously, clearly rendered with vivid colours. The camera glides through the scene, capturing effortless landscapes and sterile court scenes. In the end we’re left with a film that feels airbrushed, that manages to form a neat glaze over top of the gritty subject matter being depicted. It’s too clean. It lacks the edge, dirt, and grime that the material requires.
Devil’s Knot is far from atrocious. For those unfamiliar with the West Memphis Three, it will serve as a perfunctory lesson on the convoluted reality of the case. On the whole, it serves as a frivolous accessory to the more thorough documentaries that came before. It skims the surface of the facts, and offers a lackluster portrayal of the truth. It simply isn’t enough.