The 1993 case of the West Memphis Three is one of the most controversial murder cases in US history; it saw three teenagers, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin – despite there being no DNA evidence to link them to the crime scene – convicted of the murder of three 8-year-old boys in what was suspected as being part of a satanic ritual. That concludes the history lesson, but what is clearly a horrifying yet fascinating case that smells of something rotten – recanted confessions, lost evidence and mystery suspects – has been turned into a feature length film that has bitten off more than it can chew.
Directed by The Sweet Hereafter’s Atom Egoyan, Devil’s Knot tries, for large parts unsuccessfully, to cover a lot of stuff in such a short space of time, whilst in the meantime fails to grip us emotionally with any heart or soul in its performances. Reece Witherspoon, who plays the grieving mother Pam Hobbs, tries to pull on the heartstrings with her overcooked Southern accent in a performance that screamed TV movie. Colin Firth, in the role of Ron Lax – a private investigator working for the defense – carries an even dodgier accent, but is a character who is frustratingly never fully developed, despite several lazy attempts at a backstory.
Egoyan’s film takes a turn for the better, however, as soon as the trials of the accused begin. The way in which the Chloe director leaks out information, leaving the audience hanging on each twist and turn in a case that is depicted as a clear miscarriage of justice, is engaging enough to keep you going, despite a difficulty to connect with the central characters.
The story of the West Memphis Three has produced numerous books and documentaries over the past 21 years, and the importance of Devil’s Knot is that it once again brings important questions, about both society itself and the American legal system, to the public’s attention. It tries, and fails, to extend its reach beyond the case itself (Firth’s character) – the movies biggest mistake. This is not a bad film – it grows stronger as it goes along – but it is one that is saved by the sheer power of its story, rather than anything else.