Movie Review: West Memphis Three revisited with “Devil’s Knot”

ImageIf nothing else, the scope of the story of the West Memphis\Robin Hood Hills
murders should have given “Devil’s Knot” director Atom Egoyan pause. A 1993
tragedy compounded by a laughably incompetent police investigation and the
efforts of the cops, the ham-fisted prosecutors and an already
made-up-his-feeble-mind judge to railroad three heavy-metal-loving young men
accused of a Satanic/witchcraft ritual murder, this decades-long case was
notorious without a feature film treatment.

The intrepid filmmakers/activists behind “Paradise Lost” made three long
award-winning documentaries that covered the crime, the trials, and efforts
afterward to raise questions that eventually got the accused set free. Peter
Jackson even parachuted in for his own documentary.

But Egoyan, perhaps reaching for some of that sublime, understated grief that
earned him kudos with his most acclaimed film, “The Sweet Hereafter,” plunged in
with a truncated, perfunctory and utterly straightforward version of this “true
story.” The last thing it needed was that sort of treatment.

Reese Witherspoon stars as working class Pam, whose adoring eight-year-old
son Stevie was one of three who rode his bike off the end of their West Memphis,
Arkansas, street, into dense woods, only to be found naked, murdered in shallow
“Devil’s Den” creek.

And even though, right from the start, clues pointed them elsewhere, the cops
started looking closely at a bunch of goth-minded teenage boys.
They had the wrong addresses– trailer parks. They wore the wrong haircuts,
listened to the wrong music, read the wrong books. They had the wrong names — a
“Damien” and a “Jason” among them.

They had to be guilty. Of something. As a detective admits, with no
consequences for his stupidity, the murders were destined to happen because
“We’ve been expecting something like this to happen around here for quite a
while.”
Elias Koteas is a probation officer who has listened to one troubled teen’s
many stories of witchcraft sacrifices with the gullibility of a backwoods rube.
Bruce Greenwood is the judge who saw nothing wrong with botched evidence
handling, mail-order college certified “experts” on the occult and massive
evidence of police and prosecutorial misconduct.
And Colin Firth is Ron Lax, the recently-divorced local private detective who
makes this case his cause.
“I think three dead kids is enough,” he says, throwing himself into the
defense team’s efforts to save three boys from the death penalty for crimes they
almost certainly did not commit.
Firth’s character might have been the focus, as Lax and Witherspoon’s mother
character come to a meeting of the minds over what is being done to the accused,
and who might be getting away with murder. But Egoyan got lost in the casting
and editing, struggling to find screen time for Dane DeHaan as a kid who was an
earlier suspect, for the fathers of two of the boys ( Alessandro Nivola, Kevin
Durand), whom the documentaries frame in a sinister light.
Egoyan does well by the awful, sad search for the kids and the distraught
cops and grief-stricken parents when they discover them. He struggles to find
any heart to the story once the clumsy cops and bad police work come to dominate
the story. And he loses track of Firth’s PI Ron Lax, who should be the moral
center of the piece.

There’s too much tragedy, grief and outrage here for a single movie. Egoyan
may realize that now. And there’s scant hope that Monte Hellman, who directed
“West Memphis Three,” starring Chloe Sevigny, due out this November, made out
any better with this long, convoluted and ugly saga of small town justice’s
shortcomings. It’s a epic tragedy, and summing it up in under two hours does
nobody justice.

Image

MPAA Rating:  unrated, violence, partial nudity, blood
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth, Dane DeHaan, Bruce Greenwood</P>
Credits: Directed by Atom Egoyan, screenplay by Paul Harris Boardman and
Scott Derrickson, based on the Mara Leveritt book. An RLJ Entertainment release.
Running Time: 1:54

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