One of the most heartbreaking small-town murder mysteries in recent history gets the sensationalist and sentimental treatment.
July 28, 2014
It's the movie that was always going to be made, the re-enacted version of one of the most heartbreaking small-town murder mysteries and biggest miscarriages of justice the United States has seen. It's also the movie that never should have been made, for the devastating true tale as told in four documentaries now — the Paradise Lost trilogy, and West of Memphis — can't be embellished, fictionalised or bested.
Yet exist Devil's Knot does, a cinematic facsimile of the originals, albeit with an ample dose of star power. Though the potency of the facts remains, the sensationalist and the sentimental combine in an attempt to craft a cautionary case of tragedy crippling a community not just in its initial appearance but in the way it is then handled.
Two trios drive the story: eight-year-old schoolboys who meet a gruesome fate, and teen outsiders marked for their difference. In the wake of the crime that rocked Arkansas, panicked locals start braying for the blood of Damien Echols (James Hamrick), Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether) and Jessie Misskelley Jr (Kristopher Higgins). For private investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth), discrepancies complicate the reported information. As grief-stricken mother Pamela Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon) watches on, the untimely demise of her son becomes a circus fuelled by a determination to convict and a disregard for competing theories.
Alas, though dead children, blamed adolescents and bureaucratic bungling make for strong material, Devil's Knot places its emphasis on Lax and Hobbs, unconvincing figures of focus rendered as observers, not participants. Their sympathetic access point isn't needed given the strength of what lies beneath, nor are Firth and Witherspoon's overplayed performances.
Another issue plagues the adaptation of Mara Leveritt's 2002 text of the same name: only relating part of the puzzle. Many real-life developments occurred after the book's publication; that the outcome is relegated to the film's endnotes robs it of its conclusion. With a wealth of data to draw upon, something had to give, and the problem of recreating oft-seen scenes was always going to be difficult to overcome. Director Atom Egoyan and his writers — Deliver Us From Evil duo Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson — just can't strike the right balance, indulgent in what they include and troubled by what remains absent.
What emerges in Devil's Knot is an unfortunate example of the right pedigree and intentions making the wrong moves, on a subject so scrutinised that any missteps would always stand out. With an auteur's eye on an inflammatory case, and with well-known actors wringing importance from the situation, the film wants to exemplify the kind of haunting deliberation of complexity the story demands, but its lingering gaze — narratively, emotionally and aesthetically — remains superfluously tied to its surface.