The shocking 1993 murder of three 8-year-old boys in the Bible Belt town of West Memphis, Ark. — already exhaustively documented in four nonfiction features and multiple books — gets the star-studded “based on a true story” treatment in Atom Egoyan’s “Devil’s Knot.” And while Egoyan and Co. are to be commended for doing a tactful, dignified job with material that could have made for a ghoulish horror show, the result nevertheless comes across as a flat, ponderous proposition, transforming a fascinating tale of small-town prejudice and miscarried justice into a surprisingly staid courtroom drama. Although the film is sure to generate healthy sales traffic on the presence of top-billed Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth, the macabre subject seems unlikely to woo those stars’ core date-night demos, while audiences already familiar with the case will wonder what more they could possibly learn here. (The answer: not very much.)
On one level, it’s puzzling as to why anyone thought this movie needed to be made, arriving as it does less than two years after documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Oscar-nominated “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” and less than one after Amy Berg’s “West of Memphis,” which flatlined at the box office despite the much-touted presence of Peter Jackson as executive producer. Adding to that general feeling of “et cetera” is the fact that Egoyan’s pic, based on investigative journalist Mara Leveritt’s book of the same name, only covers events up through the two 1994 trials that ended in life convictions for accused perpetrators Jessie Misskelly and Jason Baldwin, and a death sentence for alleged ringleader Damien Echols. Meanwhile, the subsequent two decades of revelations and public outrage —in many ways the most dramatic piece of the story — are relegated to card upon card of onscreen text at the end.
What’s understandable is that Berlinger and Sinofsky’s remarkable trilogy of “Paradise Lost” docus, which played a major role in building awareness of the WM3 case, gave face time to a cast of such extraordinarily poignant, creepy and self-dramatizing characters who certainly seemed like they belonged in a Hollywood movie. And yet, perhaps for that very reason, what’s onscreen in “Devil’s Knot” almost always feels like a poor substitute for what was there in real life.
Partly, Egoyan and screenwriters Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman seem stymied by the sheer breadth of the material, trying to tell a story in less than two hours that took the first “Paradise Lost” movie two-and-a-half hours to wrap itself around. As our guide, they give us Firth, awkwardly cast as Ronald Lax, the Memphis private investigator who offered his services pro bono to Echols’ defense team. Though Lax is a real person who made significant contributions to the WM3 case, here he feels like one of those invented composite characters routinely forged by screenwriters to carve a path through some dense narrative thicket, while Firth himself never fully convinces as a Southern gentleman, spending much of the movie looking as though he might melt from the heat.
Far more affecting is real Southern belle Witherspoon as Pam Hobbs, the mother of victim Stevie Branch, and Alessandro Nivola as her second husband, who would eventually become a suspect. If even a dressed-down Witherspoon still looks a touch too glamorous to fully convince as a greasy-spoon waitress, her unpredictable expressions of motherly grief are never less than startling, whether literally tearing her hair out during a police interview or embarrassing herself without realizing it on the TV news. Nivola, too, gets deep under the skin of Terry Hobbs, a private, quizzical man who exudes quiet menace.
Their scenes together bristle with a mystery and tension that most of “Devil’s Knot” lacks as it dutifully relates the key talking points of the trials — Misskelly’s forced confession, the “satanic panic” that condemned Echols in the public eye before he ever took the stand — in dry, procedural fashion. Curiously, the West Memphis Three themselves figure only as fleeting supporting characters in this version of the tale, which may be just as well given that newcomer James Hamrick, while he certainly looks the part, isn’t a patch on the real Echols’ innate, camera-grabbing magnetism.
Making his first fully fledged U.S. production, Egoyan does a sturdy but uninspired job, absent the lyrical atmosphere of “The Sweet Hereafter,” his own earlier film on the shockwaves radiating out from the death of several small children. Whereas that movie ran thick with a sense of tight-knit communities and the secrets they keep, “Devil’s Knot” only occasionally feels weightier than a high-end Lifetime original or “Law & Order” episode. Perhaps because he was concerned about sensationalizing the material, Egoyan overcompensates by keeping the drama on a too-low boil throughout, a mood further enhanced by Mychael Danna’s persistent, trance-like score.
Berlinger and Sinofsky, who earn “special appearance” credits here, filmed a cameo as themselves that was cut from the final print but, per Egoyan, will be a featured extra on the DVD release.