On the 5th of May 1993, in rural Arkansas, three eight-year-old boys disappeared, their bodies found, naked and bound, in a local creek the following day. Despite a lack of physical evidence, in 1994, three local teenagers were convicted of the murders, which were said to be the work of a satanic cult. Extensively documented, most notably in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost trilogy, the case of the West Memphis Three remains one of the most notorious murder investigations in recent history. Directed by Atom Egoyan, Devil’s Knot is the first dramatised account of the case, but as a new entry into an already sizeable body of work drawing on the case, the film inevitably begs the question of whether or not such a project brings anything new to the table.
The problem is that, perhaps, in a mere two hours, Devil’s Knot endeavours to cover every possible theory concerning the murders. The sighting of a mysterious, bloodied man in a local diner the night of the boys’ disappearance, for instance, brings to light an angle minimally documented. Egoyan’s intentions are certainly noble; the film, dedicated to the memories of Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers, is respectful in its representation of the facts. Unfortunately, this focus on the depiction of truth makes for an extremely disjointed film. The constant juxtaposition of scenes of conflicting evidence, and the rapid, slightly erratic leaps between past and present, which only serve to skew the film’s sense of time, add to the sense of fragmentation.
The lack of continuity in Devil’s Knot deters both character development and narrative focus. This, in turn, prevents the film from becoming emotionally captivating. Devil’s Knot divides its focus equally between defence investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth), who believes the teenagers have been wrongly accused, and Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), the mother of one of the victims, who develops her own doubts regarding the charges. Undoubtedly capable of bringing a certain gravitas to his role, the script however allows Firth little room to perform – the majority of his scenes see him do little other than stand still wearing a troubled expression. Equally, while there is little to criticise in Witherspoon’s performance – other than her painfully exaggerated Southern accent – it fails to bring substance to the film. Again, this is largely the fault of the script. There are moments of extreme poignancy – Pam visits her late son’s school to request that his homework be graded, only to be spontaneously embraced by his classmates. However, despite the film’s tragic subject matter, such moments appear sporadically and seem oddly misplaced. Regrettably, the inept treatment of this emotional dimension results in an overreliance on the film’s score – an insistently melancholic affair which undermines the effectiveness of multiple scenes.
Devil’s Knot provides no closure; it has no intention of solving the mystery of the West Memphis murders. On the contrary, it simply suggests an abundance of inconclusive possibilities – and ends. Yet, as Firth claims in the film’s defence, “Atom was convinced that that was important, almost from a Kafkaesque point of view”. Certainly, the film’s open-endedness is necessary to express the ambiguity which surrounds the case to this day. Ultimately, however, the dramatisation seems unjustified. Egoyan fails to find the balance between drama and a commitment to the truth, revealing nothing which has not been covered in the documentaries which precede Devil’s Knot, nor does it fictionalise the events extensively or effectively enough to merit their dramatisation. Does the film bring anything new to the table? The answer, in short, is no.