After having spent close to a year hearing only negative things about it, I finally watched Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot last night. On the basis of what a lot of critics had said about the film, I have to admit that I was mostly watching it to see if I needed to include it on my upcoming list of the 16 worst films of 2014.
But you know what?
Devil’s Knot really isn’t a bad film. It’s just an extremely unnecessary one.
Devil’s Knot opens with a title card that reads, “Based on a true story.” Honestly, the title card could have just as easily read, “Based on a true story and if you doubt it, there’s four other movies you can watch.” The trial, conviction, and subsequent imprisonment of the West Memphis Three is perhaps the most famous miscarriage of justice in recent history precisely because so many documentaries have been made about it. Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost Part Three are two of the most disturbing true crime documentaries ever made.
(As for Paradise Last Part Two, it displays a stunning lack of self-awareness as it attempts to prove the guilt of John Mark Byers by using many of the same techniques that were used to convict the West Memphis Three. The less said about it, the better.)
The story is so well-known that I almost feel like retelling it would be like taking the time to inform you that George Washington was our first president. But here goes — in 1993, 3 eight year-old boys were murdered in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas. Three teenagers were arrested for the crime and, on the flimsiest of evidence, were convicted. As is seen in the documentaries, their conviction had more to do with community hysteria and paranoia than anything else. The supposed leader of the West Memphis Three, Damien Echols, was accused of being a Satanist. Why? Mostly because he wore black clothing.
Eventually — and largely as a result of the documentaries made about the case — the West Memphis Three would be freed from prison. (However, their convictions would still legally stand, meaning that their exoneration would be limited to the court of public opinion.) Devil’s Knot, however, doesn’t deal with any of that, beyond a lengthy scroll of “this is what happened after the movie” information that rolls up the screen after the final scene. Instead, Devil’s Knot deals with the first trial of the West Memphis Three and the small town atmosphere of fear and hysteria that led to them being convicted in the first place.
And — though the film is surprisingly conventional when you consider the reputation of director Atom Egoyan — it’s all fairly well-done. As a former resident of and frequent visitor to Arkansas, I was happy to see that Egoyan didn’t indulge in as many stereotypes as I feared he would. (One need only watch the self-important Northern activists in Paradise Lost Two to see the attitude that I feared Egoyan would bring to the project.) Reese Witherspoon is perfectly cast as the mother of one of the murdered boys. Kevin Durand is properly intimidating at John Mark Byers. Even Colin Firth manages to make for a convincing Arkansan.
But, ultimately, Devil’s Knot just feels so unnecessary. It doesn’t bring anything new to the story and there’s ultimately nothing here that you couldn’t have learned from the original Paradise Lost.
Probably the best thing that I can say about Devil’s Knot is that it’s better than Paradise Lost Part Two.