Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

Inside how a town’s vengeance led to a shocking miscarriage of justice

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed by Atom Egoyan
Produced by Elizabeth Fowler, Richard Saperstein, Clark Peterson, Christopher Woodrow and Boardman
Written by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson, based on the book Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three by Mara Leveritt
Released on VOD by RLJ/Image Entertainment
USA. 114 min. Not Rated
With Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Amy Ryan, Stephen Moyer, Dane DeHaan, Mireille Enos, Alessandro Nivola, Bruce Greenwood, Matt Letscher, Michael Gladis

Devil’s Knot calmly makes the unfathomable real – how an Arkansas community coped with a terrible crime through the vengeful catharsis of a shocking miscarriage of justice.

Director Atom Egoyan, who dealt seriously with a grieving small town in The Sweet Hereafter (1997) and the impact of a notorious death in Where the Truth Lies (2005), interprets a real, well-known story, with the production involvement of several of those most affected and as covered by a regional reporter into a book. This from-the-inside version just overlaps to when outsider documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky first started their exposé Paradise Lost trilogy-- The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), that went on to Revelations (2000) and Purgatory (2011), then Amy Berg continued investigating in last year’s West Of Memphis.

With more sensitivity to the locals than the documentaries, the film opens with a normal day in May 1993, as Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon) drops off and picks up her happy eight-year-old son Stevie Branch at school. In what looks like an old-fashioned Mayberry, she quickly agrees, while she cooks dinner, to let him ride off on his bike with his friend Michael Moore. The camera follows as they are joined at the edge of thick woods by another boy, Christopher Byers, cross a log over a creek (a recurring image), and disappear.

The tensions beneath the surface, including the boys’ complicated blended families, start rising when Hobbs tries to raise the alarm about her missing son, as her husband, Terry (Alessandro Nivola), Stevie’s step-father, is much more casual, such that she’s horrified to think during a stressful night of waiting for news, that he’s even relieved that her son is gone. The police look every bit the country sheriffs as they blunder around, particularly when they begin to find clues near that murky creek. This is no pristine CSI crime scene.

When the dead boys are found the next day (and this film is much more visually circumspect than the documentaries’ use of the crime photos), everything changes. Because it’s not just that the bodies were in the creek, but that they were naked, bound, and apparently genitally mutilated. This gruesome horror makes the police open more to looking for evil than forensic evidence. The county juvenile officer Jerry Driver (Elias Koteas) is there to fill the void of the incomprehensible with what comes across here as a reasonable explanation – a Satanic cult led by a troubled 18-year-old, Damien Echols (William Hamrick), who he had been obsessively following for years through minor offenses and trailer-life family squabbles,.

The police set off to find anyone who had been seen hanging around with him, and pick up 17-year-old befuddled, and barely intelligible, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. (Kristopher Higgins) for 12 hours of relentless interrogation (without a lawyer or parent), until he confesses, and they guide his statement to match the evidence. Based on his confession, they pick up 16-year-old Jason Baldwin (the only actual Southern teen-ager, Seth Meriweather), who insists on his innocence, and long-haired, pale, stubborn Echols.

The police investigation stops with the announced success of arresting the murderers, and the church fills to ardently pray for the expiation of Satan’s influence. There’s the first glimpses, in the background, of the vicious sermonizing rants of another victim’s step-father, John Mark Byers (Kevin Durand), who was a more controversial and suspicious, hillbilly stereotype, mullet-wearing figure in the documentaries. Following the parole officer’s advice to bring in an expert on the occult, informants from other cases figure out they can make deals to distract from their own legal problems to feed the biases of the police towards the defendants. Misinformation and misdirection from the likes of Vicki Hutcheson (Mireille Enos), a low-rent Mata Hari, and her highly imaginative son, didn’t rise to credibility for the legal record that was the focus of the documentaries in fighting for appeals, but were the static in the background that influenced the prosecutors, jury pool, and Judge David Burnett (frequent Egoyan star Bruce Greenwood). These almost luridly comical characters are treated as seriously in the film as they were by the officials.

Even though these don’t quite look like the holy rollers and squabbling parents turning on each other in the documentaries, private investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth) does stand out as considerably more middle class when he’s first seen at an art auction and eating at an upscale restaurant, even compared to the lawyers. The defense attorneys are completely overwhelmed, including making the glaring mistake of not cleaning up Echols’ appearance for court, let alone his rebellious attitude, as the heavy metal fan still looked like the community’s concept of the bogeyman. (Turns out in this fundamentalist community “the occult” pretty much meant anything supernatural, even horoscopes, let alone that he checked out a library book on Wicca religion.) Throughout, Lax is the lone voice of reason and rationality (and would continue on through years), though his emotional venting to his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) is the closest the film gets to outrage. He’s the first one doggedly looking for alternative suspects, such as drug dealer Chris Morgan (Dane DeHaan) who has the grungy, sullen looks that would make him a prime candidate anywhere else. Pam Hobbs is portrayed as just wanting the truth, and buffeted by panicked confusion when such possibilities are suppressed in court.

The sound and the look are keys to the atmosphere of ominous inevitability of the conviction, where the film ends. Mychael Danna’s score is creepy, even with no southern Deliverance touches. Egoyan’s long time cinematographer Paul Sarossy’s circling camera keeps sweeping back to the scene of the crime at dusk, through the seasons, like a gateway to mystery.

For all the admirable sympathy in using only local points-of-view, there’s no hint, not even in the concluding scroll, of the bitterly ironic finding by the expensive forensics experts, paid years later by outside advocates, that contributed to the now adult men’s eventual release after almost two decades in jail, with Echols from death row. The supposed castrations of the bodies –which whipped up the community’s psycho-sexual fears of evil beyond murder -- were really post-mortem turtle bites.

Whether you have seen one or more of the documentaries on the case, and especially if you haven’t, or been confused by what you’ve heard in the extensive media coverage, this is worth seeking out on Video-On-Demand and iTunes as a thoughtfully revealing perspective.

May 30, 2014

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of many of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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