For each of the last three years, the story of what transpired in West Memphis, Arkansas on May 5, 1993 has been the subject of a film that has played the Toronto International Film Festival.
In 2011, we saw the third installment of the Award winning Paradise Lost series. After an initial documentary that brought international focus to the case, and a quick follow up that was more about the filmmakers themselves (along with some egregious manipulation of their subject matter), Directors Berlinger and Sinofsky returned after 11 years with a film that was part summation, part mature follow up on their previous outings.
Garnering an Oscar nomination, when PL3 screened at TIFF it included its original ending, which left the fate of the incarcerated subjects still in limbo. In actuality, mere days before its premiere, the three convicted murders under a unique legal maneuver were released from jail for time served, while the state continues to have their convictions in place on the books.
The fourth film, West of Memphis, played TIFF in 2012, and detailed many of the same events as the previous three films, this time through the lens of both the WM3’s celebrity friends (including producer Peter Jackson) and the so-called leader of the group, Damien Echols. While the other three docs shed light in various ways on other alternative suspects, WoM strongly alleged the involvement of the murdered boys’ fathers, yet wisely remained skeptical about all circumstantial evidence in the case. As a
As I wrote last year, “At its most base level, [WoM] is a film that provides mild contextualization to a story already well told, which may or may not be sufficient for your enjoyment of the film as a standalone work. At worst, it may be accused of letting the other films do the heavy lifting, creating a simplified version of events with two dimensional co-conspirators and even less articulated presentations of near faceless young victims.” If this charge can be laid upon an otherwise fine documentary, what can be said about Devil’s Knot, a fictionalized version of the same events?
Well, the first question that must be asked is this: Do we need a fictional version of this story? Does the Devil’s Knot add anything, be it intellectually or aesthetically to what has already been covered so extensively by other, greater works? Do we need this film?
The answer, sadly, is a resolute “no”.
Devil’s Knot is clunky, sordid, and at its worst pedantic. It focuses so superficially on these events that comparing it to made-for-TV docudramas does injustice to that form of television. Its performances are arch, its story facile, and perhaps most egregiously it treads on the specifics of the case in order to craft a meagre drama, while overlong scrolling text at the finale tries to tie everything up neatly.
It’s no surprise that both Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth have been in far superior films. Even the decision about which characters to follow with our leads (one of the moms and a private investigator) reeks of desperation, as the core and thus most dramatically interesting elements of the narrative are left to be supporting of this weird film.
Based on a “true crime” book by Mara Leveritt, the film does touch upon events only hinted at both during the trial at in the other films, perhaps adding a few shades to those seeking another facet of this case that has become so fascinating to so many. Still, it’s hard to see that images of a blood stained fast food restaurant wall from a mysterious African American, or not-so-subtle hints about an abusive father will really lead anyone already steeped in this story to any new revelations.
There’s one standout element of the film, and that’s Kevin Durand. PL2 and 3 focussed on the John Mark Byers, one of the victims fathers, and this larger than life character is played to near perfection by Durand. This large character actor has slowly become a kind of talisman in films in which he appears, a standout character actor that seems to rise above the parts that he’s given. I may be repeating myself, but I’d love to see this guy become a superstar when he’s given the right project to shine as a lead.
As for our ostensible leads, there’s little to recommend. Beyond her recent tabloid troubles, Reese has done little in the way of solid performance of late, and the trend continues in this film. As much as I adore Firth, here he has little to play with, a character with little definition save for a way of gluing disparate plot elements together.
The other supporting actors do what they can, but they too are hobbled by a hackneyed script and mundane direction. Egoyan’s masterpiece, The Sweet Hereafter, is about a town coming to grips with the loss of a schoolbus full of children. He was able in that fine film to deftly play the various shades of tragedy, with a roving camera created a wonderfully introspective mood. Here similar tricks are used, but they seem to fall flat, the dialogue and plotting simply not allowing for this level of subtlety.
Alas, The Devil’s Knot proves a Gordian dud, a needless and gratuitous take on events that add little to the discourse, perhaps only of use to those allergic to documentaries. It’s an easy recommendation to encourage viewers to skip this film all together, but I would still suggest for those that have spent four previous films worth of time with the case they might be intrigued to see just what a heavy handed fictionalization of such events looks like, if only as another cautionary tale about what happens when Hollywood tries to make a story palatable for a mass market.