In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
When Atom Egoyan announced that he’d be directing a movie about the West Memphis Three, the initial reaction was basically: Why? What could a fictionalized narrative reveal about this particular case of injustice that four acclaimed documentaries made over a period of two decades hadn’t already? I still haven’t seen Devil’s Knot, but it was clear from a single publicity still that Egoyan—once a strong candidate for my favorite living filmmaker—had no clue what he was doing with this material. Specifically, the actor he’d cast in the Damien Echols role, the most articulate and thoughtful of the three teenagers convicted for the murder of three younger boys, looked more like a J. Crew model than like a metal-obsessed small-town outcast. Asked about the lack of resemblance by a journalist, Egoyan defended his choice, James Hamrick, saying, “There is this incredible, alluring charisma to Damien Echols and we needed to capture that.”
Fair enough. But not all charisma is created equal, and the kind exhibited by Echols in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s masterpiece Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills has little in common with, say, Josh Hartnett strutting down a high-school hall to Heart’s “Magic Man” in The Virgin Suicides (which is what the publicity photo of Hamrick called to mind). Nor do I particularly agree with Egoyan’s assertion that Echols unwittingly contributed to his own conviction by refusing to downplay his estrangement from the community. Paradise Lost includes a fair amount of footage from the original trial, including Echols being cross-examined by the prosecution, and while he’s a fascinating personality, he rarely comes across as anything other than a polite, cooperative kid who’s answering every question as honestly as he can. There are moments in the documentary (always when he’s off the witness stand) when he seems dangerously blasé about his situation, but never a moment when he seems defiant or hostile or determined to trumpet his lack of orthodoxy. Here’s an example:
Clearly, the prosecuting attorney believes he has Echols cornered. First, he asks Echols whether he’s familiar with Aleister Crowley, quite likely expecting the dismissive reply that he gets. Then he springs his big trap: a sheet of paper on which Echols practiced writing in some sort of cipher, using Crowley’s name alongside that of family and friends. The implication is that Echols is much more of a Crowley fan than he just let on, though it’s hard to say exactly what conclusion a sensible jury (NOTE: not this jury) is meant to draw from such a revelation, even should they decide to accept it. This is the weakest sort of circumstantial evidence—indeed, it barely even qualifies as evidence, functioning more as an ad hominem attack. Even if one posits that the murders in question were committed by individuals with a strong belief in the occult (which the prosecution never even vaguely demonstrated, at least not in the courtroom footage included in Paradise Lost), it doesn’t follow that an interest in the occult suggests a predisposition to murder. That’s a basic logical fallacy called “affirming the consequent,” which one hopes the defense attorney then proceeded to quickly dismantle.
To his credit, however, Echols doesn’t even really fall for this trap. Though he says he’s only familiar with Crowley in passing, having read about him secondhand, he immediately adds that he’d happily have read Crowley’s books had he ever come across one. At no point does he attempt to deny that he was interested in the occult, and when the prosecutor drops his gotcha bomb, Echols doesn’t get flustered. He just reads the names, including Crowley’s, without stopping to interject something along the lines of “…and—oh, okay, I see why you gave me this. Let me explain why I included Aleister Crowley here.” He simply waits for the inevitable follow-up question and then answers it directly, with a reason that sounds completely plausible: He used Crowley’s name because the book from which he’d learned the cipher “also had stuff about him in it.” This whole silly cross-examination reminds me of some scrap paper I once sent a new girlfriend, early on during the wild-infatuation stage. I’d written her name several dozen times (doodling while talking to someone on the phone, I believe), but had also written some random film titles—including Gene Hackman’s sorry final film, Welcome To Mooseport, which was rattling around in my brain because I’d just seen it in my dad’s DVD collection. New Girlfriend was highly amused to see Mooseport juxtaposed with her own name, but thankfully she did not conclude that my regard for her and my regard for that particular movie (which I haven’t seen) are equivalent.
Most of all, what comes across in this footage—and in all of Paradise Lost’s trial footage—is how earnest, polite, and cooperative Echols is. At times, when Berlinger and Sinofsky catch him unawares, he can be seen in the courtroom doing ill-advised stuff like checking out his hair in a handheld mirror, which makes him look disturbingly callous. (He also reportedly blew kisses at the victim’s families, though that’s not in the documentary.) On the stand, however, he never comes across as arrogant or belligerent or even especially creepy. He just answers the questions calmly and plainly, as if he’d been called as a witness rather than as one of the defendants in a murder trial. One could argue that Berlinger and Sinofsky, whose film pretty clearly means to make the case that the West Memphis Three were wrongly convicted, were selective about what they chose to include and omit, deliberately making Echols look as innocent as possible. But since their footage, to my knowledge, is the only significant record of these events that exists (apart from local TV-news stories), that’s all Egoyan had to go with for Devil’s Knot. And it’s difficult to see how anyone could look at this bright oddball and think “he oozes so much charisma that only a super-hunk could convey it on-screen.”
Again, I haven’t seen Devil’s Knot, so it’s possible that I’m mischaracterizing it. I’ve seen Paradise Lost many times, however, and there’s no question that part of its enduring power is the disparity it creates (whether that’s manufactured is a subject for another, much longer essay) between Echols’ public image as a ghoulish Satan-worshipper and the fairly ordinary kid who appears in the film. To the extent that he’s unusual, it’s due to his hailing from small-town Arkansas; you can find a dozen Damien Echolses in any square block of any major city. Turning him into someone who looks as if he’d be too busy fighting off cheerleaders to practice cipher alphabets reveals a woeful misunderstanding of what made the West Memphis Three case notable enough to attract so much attention. Sometimes, you can judge a character by his haircut.