TIFF 2013 Review: Devil’s Knot

Considering I’ve seen four documentaries about the West Memphis Three, Devil’s Knot is a really effective way to portray what those events must have been like from the inside. If you have not seen the Paradise Lost trilogy or West of Memphis and are learning about this for the first time, you must think this courtroom looks ridiculously biased.

When three little boys are found dead and tied up in the forest at Robin Hood Hills, the police arrest Damien Echols (James Hamrick), Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether) and Jessie Misskelley Jr. (Kristopher Higgins). The prosecutors sell them as Satan worshipers who killed the boys in a ritual. Ron Dax (Colin Firth) sees the evidence doesn’t add up and he tries to advise the defense to challenge the persecution prosecution, but as history shows, the first trial was a mess.

I remember a lot of the details from the documentaries, so seeing them pop up in Devil’s Knot, I knew the screenplay adaptation was being very faithful. At the same time, it portrays the impressions of the case rather than a strictly linear timeline. Some courtroom scenes are identified as a range of dates, and even a single testimony takes two days. That is to say, the scene represents months or at least days of testimony. It didn’t happen in this specific order or on any particular day, but it’s essentially accurate.

I remember Echols as a teenager acting out by threatening protestors and media. That’s portrayed but not as a focal point. It just captures his spirit. John Mark Byers (Kevin Durand) whispers to others in the trial spectator seats. We know how Byers felt before he saw the new evidence, so the film includes his perspective within the structure of the narrative. It doesn’t need to take time out to focus on Byers.

As a narrative film, Devil’s Knot can visually illustrate how some of the testimony was unsound. For example, Vicki Hutcherson (Mireille Enos) tells a story about witnessing an occult ceremony. As the film flashes back to this ceremony, it can pull out to reveal she was only watching the ceremony on TV. Now that specific misrepresentation wouldn’t have come out in trial, but if her testimony was later discredited, it can be shown without violating the courtroom transcripts. They discredit the “occult expert” the old fashioned way, by cross-examination.

From the victims’ side, Devil’s Knot focuses on one mother, Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), although if you know the case, the Hobbs family is an important one on whom to focus. As personal as the Dax and Hobbs stories are, I still felt this was an ensemble portrait of the case. There are long sections without Pam or other characters, and some major characters like Vicki and Chris Morgan (Dane DeHaan) only appear for a handful of scenes. The point isn’t to make this a star-studded vehicle for anyone, although Witherspoon must have had to be there every day for the courtroom scenes because Pam would have been a trial spectator.

Listen, I understand a mother’s grief driving her to prejudice. That’s an impossible situation; no one can be at their best or most objective. The court should be though. The prosecution is so smug, It’s not hard to believe that’s accurate. We know they got away with it until Echols and Baldwin were freed in 2011. A scene of Pam in her son’s old classroom is a bit of a play for emotion. It’s smart in the construction of the emotion, but at that point I’m onto the film for what it’s creating.

For all my knowledge on the subject, Devil’s Knot still provided a few new details I either forgot about or never knew. I don’t remember the story of the bloody African-American man in the Bojangles restroom. It might have been in one of the Paradise Lost sequels, but it shows how thorough a dramatic retelling of a true story can be. Granted, it’s only about a year of the true story, the trial section, but that’s still a lot of verifiable information to interweave into a drama.

This has been a good TIFF for true stories. Dallas Buyers Club and Devil’s Knot stand out, with 12 Years a Slave and The Fifth Estate getting lots of acclaim and with All is By My Side, Tracks and Half of a Yellow Sun floating under the TIFF radar too. I didn’t even get a chance to see Belle or The Railway Man, so I have those to look forward to. Devil’s Knot may not pass my Google test, on whether or not a true story makes me want to Google more about the facts, but only because I’ve seen so much material on the true story already. Devil’s Knot may be the last film I need to see about the West Memphis Three, but it’s the one that may be the most accessible, certainly for people just going to see a good courtroom drama. It should never be forgotten, and this film will make sure it lasts for an eternity on streaming queues.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.


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