If you’re unfamiliar with the West Memphis 3, or the Robin Hood Hills Murders, or the Paradise Lost documentaries that gave both national attention, here’s a quick (spoiler alert) rundown: in West Memphis Arkansas in 1994, three impoverished, teenage, Goth-kids (Damian Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jesses Misskelly) were convicted of the murder of three younger boys (Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers) in an alleged Satanic ritual. The flimsy evidence, the seemingly unfair public opinion of a Bible belt town, and all the devil-cult nonsense, led to a national outcry of unprecedented proportions. Documentaries were filmed, books were published, and a gallery of young misfits turned celebrities became involved, including Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, and Dixie Chick, Natalie Maines. The WM3 were finally released from prison an few years ago, and though theories abound, the identity of the killers remains a mystery.
On May 9th the feature film The Devil’s Knot, the first live-action dramatization about the case, will be hitting theaters. How the Lifetime channel didn’t churn out a mini-series on the case in the mid-90s, I’ll never know, but rest assured The Devil’s Knot is of about the same quality that a Lifetime special would have been. Yes, this movie is unfortunately a dull, lifeless, bore of a motion picture with only a few instances of exception. How do you possibly make a murder-mystery involving ostracized proto-emo-kids, angry mobs of hicks, and mass satanic-hysteria all played out within the 90s version of the Salem Witch Trials, boring? Somehow director Atom Egoyan pulls it off, though he does get a few things right.
The casting of Reese Witherspoon in the main role as grieving Mother, Pamela Hobbs (Steve Branch’s Mom) was a pretty a good choice as Witherspoon revives her Walk the Line southern draw, in what is easily the best performance in the movie. As well played as Pamela Hobbs is, it is weird that the film focuses on such a bland player in the drama when we could have followed the far more interesting journey of the three trailer-park misfits locked away from society for almost two decades. I guess it’s because Pamela has the only thing resembling a character arc in the movie, as she grows from outraged evangelical to sympathetic skeptic in regards to the conviction of the teens.
As far as the other actors, we get decent performances by James Hamrick as Damian Echols, Matt Letscher as Jason’s hippie lawyer, and Colin Firth as a skeptical investigator. Outside of these three plus Witherspoon, the acting ranges from uninteresting to awful. Mainly we just have a bunch of B-movie types and their best efforts at country bumpkin-hood. They feel like actors, wearing mullet wigs, reading lines with bad southern accents. Perhaps the most embarrassing example is Kevin Durand as mentally disturbed adopted father of victim Christopher/one time suspect, John Mark Byers. If you thought the fanning Southern stereotype was painful, just imagine some mental illness cliches thrown in.
Once you get passed an inexplicably unnecessary scene in which soon-to-be investigator of the case Ron Lax, played by Firth, purchases items at an expensive auction, with no further pay off to the plot, the first act of The Devil’s Knot is interesting enough as the creepy disappearance in the deep woods’ premise is established with a horror-movie-like sense of dread. The tense and anxious atmosphere climaxes sufficiently when Witherspoon’s Hobbs breaks down, making you feel her anguish. Then it’s all downhill for The Devil’s Knot.
Nearly the entire movie is act-outs of every event in the case from documentaries and books. We meet all the suspects without really leaning towards any one more than the others. Even the three teens are assumed as guilty as everyone else, including a crazy black man who smeared blood all over the bathroom of a Bojangles restaurant near the crime scene, two weird ice cream men who knew the victims, and the potentially violent father and step-father of two of the boys. Firth gets a second nonsensical scene where his investigator Lax dreams of one of the murdered boys accidentally getting all tied up in his own shoe laces (the way they were found) and having a bike accident. Is this suggesting the boys accidently killed themselves? We will never know, because he doesn’t ever mention it.
The Devil’s Knot had ample opportunity to immerse the viewer in the rustic Southern town of twenty years ago, but the atmosphere and cinematography feel like an afterthought in this film. Instead we just get a bunch of movie sets that feel like movie sets. It’s been long enough that an early 90s period piece should require more than an absence of cell phones and bulkier television sets. Damien Echols superb writing effort, Life After Death is able to transport us back to the days of Headbangers Ball, Thrasher Magazine, and dubbed cassette tapes, as seen through the eyes of a lost undereducated kid in an ultra-old school American small town. The Devils Knot doesn’t even try.
Like so many half-assed film efforts, The Devil’s Knot violates the golden cinema rule of “show, don’t tell”, by repeating to us how evangelically paranoid everyone in West Memphis is instead of letting us draw that conclusion ourselves through the characters.
“Look at’em!” shrieks Withersoon in a recreation of a real interview with Pamela Hobbs, “They look like freaks!”
Why not further explore the evangelical and tabloid fueled Satanic Panic of the 80s and early 90s that, according to many, was responsible for this whole event anyway? It’s difficult to emphasize how astounding a phenomenon the American Satanic Panic was. People of all ages were imprisoned across the country at the behest of police, politicians, and parents groups, for being alleged members of violent Satanic Orders. This wasn’t in the medieval period; this was during the Nintendo era. Music and movies were in the moral majority crosshairs. And yet, Hollywood has yet to capitalize on the event. The Devil’s Knot could have established the ridiculous climate of the times with an opening credit scene featuring real talk-show and news report clips from the 80s, maybe even mixed together with grainy VHS images of 80s slasher films beneath a pounding Megadeth song or something of the sort. How bad-ass would that have been?
Even a heavy-handed comparison to The Crucible or 50’s-era McCarthyism would spruce this throw-away film up.
Another missed opportunity in The Devils Knot is well…the second half of the story. Keeping in the made-for-TV, mini-series feel of it all, The Devil’s Knot doesn’t bother expanding beyond the crime and trial, despite the phenomenon around the backlash against the verdict (though I guess it is technically based on the book, The Devil’s Knot, that was written shortly after the trial). The movie could have fast-forwarded through court room drivel and explored the lives of the teens in jail, as a rescue effort like none other was championed by from the likes of Marilyn Manson to Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. Is that not a story worth telling? It’s not every day that Henry Rollins does an album and a tour just to pay for DNA testing, or Metallica donates, yes, donates their songs to supportive documentaries. Instead we just get a few lines at the end explaining further events with not even a nod to the Hollywood rescue squad.
The story itself is engaging enough to keep viewers unfamiliar with the case from being completely unengaged, but overall The Devil’s Knot doesn’t even strive for anything beyond pure mediocrity. You’re much better off watching any of the Paradise Lost documentaries, or reading Life After Death by the surprisingly talented writer Damian Echols. Echol’s book purposefully avoids much of what has been established a thousand times about this case, and instead creatively paints a gritty, yet beautiful portrait of the life of a weird-kid within a sleepy Southern town, as well as the misery and isolation of growing to adulthood in prison. The makers of The Devil’s Knot should have taken a cue.