2013 / Director. Atom Egoyan.
Review by Glenn Cochrane.
In 1998 I saw the documentary PARADISE LOST: THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS at the Vancouver Film Festival and from that moment on I was a staunch supporter of the West Memphis Three. In fact for a number of years I ran the WM3 Melbourne Support Group and I raised a lot of money for their defence fund (perhaps some of you came to my events). For those unaware, in the most laymen of terms, the WM3 are three men who were convicted of murder without a shred of evidence connecting them with the crime. They were teenagers at the time and were the victims of a modern witch hunt and assumed guilty because of their taste in music, fashion and interests in the occult. So complex is their story that 4 lengthy documentaries have extensively covered their case and no stone has been left unturned.
Of course it was inevitable that a feature length film would be made and naturally its production stirred a lot of apprehension in people. I chose to sit on the fence and wait until I saw it before I jumped to any conclusions. The same year I saw the first WM3 doco I also saw an incredible film called THE SWEET HEREAFTER and its director, Atom Egoyan, became an influential filmmaker in my life. His sensibilities with that film made him the perfect candidate to direct DEVIL'S KNOT. There was comfort in knowing that he was steering this ship and I was able to rest easy. Last night I finally saw the film and while I was not overly impressed, it's fair to say that I wasn't entirely disappointed either.
To make a film about a subject that is already so extensively documented is a dicey game to play. There is no way that all of the intricacies of the WM3 case could possibly be covered in 115 minutes and so the only logical way they could approach the story was to focus on the aspects that weren't featured heavily in the previous films. DEVIL'S KNOT follows the characters of Pamela Hobbs (a mother of one of the victims) and Ron Lax (an investigator throughout the entire case). These two character were featured in the docos but not at length and there is definitely some disappointment in the way Pamela Hobbs is portrayed in this film. We see her begin to question the guilt of the WM3 from an early stage in the trial and she raises her own doubts about her husband. It is well documented that she became a campaigner for their innocence, however in reality her change in tune never came so quickly. And that is where DEVIL'S KNOT doesn't work. For the millions of people who have followed and supported this case and those who have seen the documentaries, there is nothing this film can offer and its lean running time is simply not sufficient.
And so the best way for me to judge DEVIL'S KNOT is to approach it from a newcomer's perspective. Where the film does succeed is in its basic entry point to the story. For all of the people who saw the 4 docos I am sure there are just as many (if not more) who are oblivious to the case and are being exposed to it for the first time. And it works at that level. All of the players are good and their likeness to real life counterparts is striking. The film takes us into the lives of some characters that we've only seen externally and it's a heartfelt examination of their grief, albeit probably not as sincere as it could have been. Reese Witherspoon portrays Pam Hobbs well, although she does teeter on the edge of caricature at times. Colin Firth is also good as Ron Lax and he delivers an understated and solemn performance. His character often lurks in the background and it's fascinating to see him absorbing the information as the story unfolds. All of the many other characters (police, lawyers etc) are well played and fairly depicted. Atom Egoyan captures the West Memphis community nicely and it reflects what we've come to know through the other films.
Having been emotionally and financially invested in the WM3 it was frustrating to not see so many important details included in the film and with it only barely scratching the surface of the case I kept wanting more. The credits roll before we've even heard some of the most crucial facts revealed and it's difficult to take... however, this fact might just inspire newcomers to look further into the story and influence them to become new supporters. And that can't be a bad thing.