It’s fair to ask what a fictional film based on the murder trial of the three teenagers known as the West Memphis Three can potentially offer a cultural conversation that’s already included four prominent documentaries and a handful of books on the subject. The answer, at its very simplest, is a melodramatic empathy that acknowledges the need to vicariously experience perversity in order to process it. A fictional film can theoretically sate the ghoulish and universal desire to be on the “inside” of a mystery of ever-widening irresolution, and this curiosity, this need to lend disorder order, is precisely what Devil’s Knot refuses to explore. Perversely, director Atom Egoyan limits himself to the outsider vantage point normally associated with an after-the-fact documentary; he doesn’t exploit the advantages of his form, and he doesn’t exhibit the daring—like Bob Fosse did in Star 80—to project himself in between the lines of fact, myth, and subterfuge.
It’s apparent that Egoyan doesn’t want to offend anyone by elaborating dramatically on such a well-publicized murder case, and this hypocritical prestige-movie skittishness is more offensive than ordinary sensationalism. The filmmaker trades on the notoriety of real events for the sake of dimly lit, moodily scored thriller portent, but in a gingerly fashion that skirts the grotesquerie of the crimes. We’re left with a superficial CliffsNotes encapsulation of moments we’ve already seen quasi-directly. The West Memphis, Arkansas citizens are rendered as hick caricatures because Egoyan refuses to get under their skin and show us moments behind their curtains that might encourage empathy. Many of the character actors are eerily credible, particularly Kevin Durand as John Mark Byers, an adoptive father of one of the victims and an eventual suspect in the murders, but they’re relegated to the margins, mixing uneasily with the superstars, such as Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, who appear to have been shoehorned into the narrative for no other reason than to increase this self-consciously cold, over-intellectualized doodle’s global marketability.
Egoyan is a much better director when he drops the art-film fanciness and wrestles directly with his inner voyeuristic weirdo (a few moments at the murder site, Robin Hood Hills, are lit in haunting earthy hues that suggest the expressive docu-fairy tale this film could have been). But this story deserves better. The 1993 trial convicted three teenagers, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, of the murder of three eight-year-old boys, Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore, on nothing more than local police desperation and prejudice. It’s a terrifying case, not only for the murders, which were presumed to have satanic associations for the hogtying and, in one case, castration, of the victims, but for its constructively demoralizing illustration that the kind of mob inhumanity that’s associated with the Salem Witch Trials and the various Red Scares, and, later, in the aftermath of 9/11, is still very precariously capable of reaching fruition. West Memphis, Arkansas faced a tragedy (the severe details of which Egoyan downplays in another instance of botched high-mindedness), and, in the grips of panic and grief and who knows what else, they leaned on easy scapegoats while incompetent, corrupt law officers and obvious major suspects led the charge toward the ruination of three probable innocents. This is a subject that should enrage and shake you in your realization of how tenuous your contract with your society truly is, but Devil’s Knot is just another true-crime thriller that turns death, without irony, into by-the-book procedure.