By Don Simpson | May 9, 2014
Director: Atom Egoyan
Writers: Paul Harris Boardman (Screenplay), Scott Derrickson (Screenplay), Mara Leveritt (Devil’s Knot: The True Story Of The West Memphis Three)
Starring: Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, James Hamrick, Kristopher Higgins, Seth Meriwether, Dane DeHaan, Mireille Enos, Kevin Durand, Elias Koteas, Stephen Moyer, Amy Ryan, Martin Henderson, Alessandro Nivola, Bruce Greenwood, Collette Wolfe, Kristoffer Polaha, Matt Letscher, Michael Gladis, Lori Beth Sikes, Jet Jurgensmeyer, Paul Boardman Jr.
On May 5, 1993, three eight-year-old boys — Steve Branch (Jet Jurgensmeyer), Michael Moore (Paul Boardman Jr.) and Christopher Byers (Brandon Spink) — were reported missing in West Memphis, Arkansas. A grossly inadequate police force determined that such a horrible act could only have been committed by satanists. So, despite having other possible leads and no hard evidence, they set their sights on two presumed satanists, 16-year old Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether) and 18-year-old Damien Echols (James Hamrick). After a third teenager, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. (Kristopher Higgins), admitted to participating in the murders with Baldwin and Echols, it quickly became an open and shut case. Mission complete, the godly townspeople of West Memphis would finally be rid of the social outcasts who dressed in black clothing and listened to heavy metal music.
While many viewers might be a bit skeptical of a fictional portrayal of the trials of the West Memphis Three (especially following four powerful documentaries — Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost trilogy and Amy J. Berg’s West of Memphis), director Atom Egoyan seemed like he might have been the perfect match for the dark and moody subject matter. Though we might anticipate another highly adept, mood-driven meditation on the untimely deaths of young children along the lines of Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Egoyan opts to to accentuate the most ridiculous aspects of the West Memphis Three trials, thus turning this grave story into an overtly melodramatic procedural.
The only Egoyanesque trademarks to be found within Devil’s Knot are the eerie environs of West Memphis and the brooding score, otherwise this film could have been made by just about any studio hack. The performances are stilted — or, in the case of Kevin Durand’s John Mark Byers, too comical — and hindered by a few really poor attempts at Arkansan accents. But luckily for Egoyan, the story is strong enough to prevail despite the film’s many directorial flaws. While Egoyan seems most interested in the flagrantly preposterous stereotyping by practically everyone in West Memphis — at least partially due to the investigators’ failure to control the details of the crimes — Devil’s Knot also highlights just how poorly the police handled the crime scene and the kids’ bodies, as well as their seemingly purposeful neglect of faulty confessions, untrustworthy witnesses and other possible leads. Literally a witch hunt, the judge and jury were handed three suspects and no real evidence and they made their decision on their own personal prejudices. The most egregious part of this entire saga is that an 18-year-old was sentenced to death for dressing in black, reading books about the occult, and listening to heavy metal music.