Over the course of the three Paradise Lost documentaries and 2012’s West Of Memphis, the figures surrounding the West Memphis Three case became as familiar to moviegoers as any screen characters. In the 18 years between the murders and the Three’s release from prison, the accused—Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley—grew more reflective, their most dogged persecutors changed their theories, and the fame of the case only grew, to the point where even the filmmakers began to dispute who had access to whom. (Disclosure: This reviewer weighed in on that controversy and interviewed the directors.)
With so much non-fiction footage available, culled from such a long time span, the last thing the case would seem to cry out for is a conventional dramatization, the kind in which glamorous actors put on just enough makeup to look 10 percent like the people they play, without any hope of imbuing the roles with the intensity already captured on film. But here’s Devil’s Knot, starring Reese Witherspoon as Pam Hobbs and a scowling Alessandro Nivola as her husband, Terry. Bruce Greenwood practices appearing disinterested as judge David Burnett, while, most jarringly, Kevin Durand (the bodyguard in Cosmopolis) works so hard not to come across as a caricature of John Mark Byers that he seems far less demonstrative than the man he plays. Given the movie barely scratches the surface of the first trials, those who come to the material cold won’t be getting a digest of a digest. Anyone who has seen the documentaries, on the other hand, will find it impossible to suspend disbelief.
There’s some promise in the fact that Devil’s Knot was directed by Atom Egoyan, whose last great film, 1997’s The Sweet Hereafter, dealt with a town grieving a collective loss. But perhaps hampered by an obligation to tell this story as respectfully as possible, the filmmaker has turned in his least personal effort ever. (He even suggested as much in an intro to last September’s Toronto world premiere.) Considering how much actual footage the movie had to work from, the most surprising thing about Devil’s Knot is that it gets the look somewhat off, replacing the lived-in homes of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost films with a posh, clean vision of suburbia.
Based on Mara Leveritt’s 2002 book, Devil’s Knot at least emphasizes some angles—the bloody man seen at the Bojangles’ restaurant, the testimony of Aaron Hutcheson—not already examined at length in the documentaries. The focus is split somewhat evenly between Witherspoon’s Hobbs and the late Ron Lax (Colin Firth), an investigator for the defense. (In a pointless digression, Amy Ryan plays his separated wife.) Lax’s inquiry into the motivations of Hutcheson’s mother, Vicki (Mireille Enos), briefly stirs a sense of mystery, but once the movie bogs down in courtrooms, it’s a lost cause. Correlative footage for many of the trial scenes exists in the first Paradise Lost film; the waxworks reenactments are so robbed of immediacy that they seem almost trivializing. It’s easy to understand the impulse to avoid melodrama. But Devil’s Knot is an inert exercise, visually and dramatically on par with Drew Peterson: Untouchable.