It may be difficult watch a film like Devil’s Knot without wondering why it exists. Atom Egoyan’s latest is but one of many films that are “based on a true story,” but also one of relatively few that are based on a story meticulously documented – in our lifetimes, no less – by no less than four critically acclaimed documentary features. What purpose, one is forced to wonder (and quite possibly aloud), does refilming these exact same events with recognizable stars like Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth and Dane DeHaan really serve?
The cynical answer – and arguably the only one that matters – is that not enough people watch documentaries and therefore may be, at best, patchily familiar with the murder of three little boys that took place in West Memphis, AK in 1993, and what is now considered the gross miscarriage of justice that followed. Three teenagers – Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. – were accused and convicted based on circumstantial evidence, suspicious testimonies and their “shocking” choice of music (heavy metal) and clothing (black) and passing interest in the occult. Who would ever be interested in hearing their pitiful story if it didn’t come from the mouth of someone who starred in Sweet Home Alabama, The King’s Speech or The Amazing Spider-Man 2?
But the optimistic answer, and one that director Atom Egoyan seems to subscribe to, is that telling the story without a social agenda emphasizes just how deeply sad it all is. Egoyan’s previous, fictional exposés of small town tragedy – Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter – were both deeply profound explorations of grief and coping, with casts just as sprawling as the one in Devil’s Knot, but with the added benefit of a proper conclusion. The story of the West Memphis Three (and let us not forget the innocent victims at the heart of all this) continues to this day, and the crime remains frustratingly unsolved. There’s a sense of lonely anguish that Devil’s Knot captures in its best moments, as characters fighting for truth and/or justice find their efforts rendered impotent at every turn by shoddy police work or simple, closed minds.
And yet that ambiguity never quite becomes Devil’s Knot’s strength; it lacks the sense of cosmic horror that transformed a tale like the first season “True Detective” into something more than a murder mystery investigated by lost souls. The weight of the Robin Hood Hills murders drives every scene but Egoyan’s focus is so frequently split between families, investigators and red herrings that the gloominess never feels entirely inescapable. To cover the enormity of the plot, Egoyan is forced to give many characters the short shrift and simple send them from one exposition monologue to the other without a meaningful point to make beyond the fact that, no matter what you believe about who did it or why, the whole situation in West Memphis totally sucked.
Devil’s Knot doesn’t totally suck; it’s a well acted, intriguing mystery. But although the intent may have been to treat this familiar tale with a different sensitivity than the Paradise Lost trilogy or West of Memphis, Egoyan’s film never snaps into place and justifies its own existence. It’s well made but redundant, merely sad when it could have placed all of the sadness into a fresh context that made audiences look at this story in a new, eye-opening light. And it’s not nearly inspiring enough to drive its audience to learn more about these events by seeking out all the other, genuinely moving movies that illuminate them better.