The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Devil's Knot

In 1993, Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers, all age eight, were brutally murdered in a section of West Memphis, Arkansas, known as Robin Hood Hills. Three teenage boys - Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin - were wrongly convicted of those murders. The trio became known as the West Memphis Three, and their supporters spent the better part of seventeen years trying to free them. The story of the West Memphis Three has inspired several movies. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky made three outstanding Paradise Lost documentaries, and Peter Jackson produced a fourth, entitled West of Memphis. Now filmmaker Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) has made a dramatization of the case, entitled Devil's Knot.

The difference here is that the story isn't really told from their perspective. Instead, the focus is on Ron Lax (Colin Firth), a private investigator who offers up his services to the defense, pro bono. Lax sees a lot of holes in the prosecution's case, from questionable interrogation methods used by local police to an unproven link between the murders and supposed satanic rituals conducted in the area. He is frustrated by the judge (Bruce Greenwood), who allows a lot of spurious “evidence” while shutting out things that could legitimately raise reasonable doubt as to the teens' guilt. Reese Witherspoon plays Pam Hobbs, the mother of one of the murdered boys. She desperately wants justice for her son, but, like Lax, doesn't think all the pieces fit together. Her abusive husband, Terry (Alessandro Nivola), doesn't seem to care who pays, so long as someone does. Several other characters hover importantly on the periphery, including the woman (Mireille Enos) whose little boy offers a shaky eyewitness testimony to the cops, and another teen (Dane DeHaan) who may know more about the killings than he lets on.

Making a dramatization of the West Memphis Three case was automatically going to be a mixed bag. On one hand, doing it this way and casting big stars like Firth and Witherspoon will introduce this chilling, important real-life event to viewers who have never seen any of the documentaries. They will learn how justice was distorted, as well as how dogged individuals attempted to hold the legal system accountable. On the other hand, the docs – especially the Paradise Lost trilogy - told this story much more thoroughly and in far greater detail. They are essential viewing. Egoyan has to condense a lot of material to make the film work. He tells a story in 114 minutes that Paradise Lost directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky told in four hundred, stretched out across three films. Consequently, certain things are glossed over quickly, such as the issue of “Satanic Panic” that was critical in poisoning the perception of the West Memphis Three.

If it can't be as thorough or complete, Devil's Knot at least does a good job of portraying the events. A sequence in which police discover the bodies of the boys is heartbreaking, and the courtroom moments are suitably riveting. Egoyan also very effectively dramatizes the titular “knot” – the idea that the case against the West Memphis Three was so twisted and distorted by paranoia and lies that the truth eventually became obscured. The movie shows different people working toward different ends, some of them not bound by provable facts. (If you know all the details of the story, you know how bizarre some of the twists and turns are.) Devil's Knot understands that the legal system is not perfect and can be susceptible to distorting influences.

Colin Firth is excellent in the lead role, playing Ron Lax with a quiet, introspective demeanor that, at times, gives way to outbursts of righteous anger. Firth is the intellect of the film, as his character is able to stand slightly outside the proceedings and see them for what they really are. Reese Witherspoon, meanwhile, is its heart. It's a supporting role for her, yet she brings an abundance of empathy to Pam Hobbs. Here is a woman who wants to see someone brought to justice for the murder of her son. But, unlike too many people in West Memphis, she wants to see the right people held accountable. The two leads get a great scene together near the end, when they reveal a shared acknowledgment that something about the whole scenario is very, very wrong.

Devil's Knot will be best appreciated by viewers unacquainted with Paradise Lost. They won't be as distracted by the comparative lack of investigatory depth. Then again, the point of a film like this isn't to investigate, but to portray, and hopefully to get at some kind of emotional truth about the subject matter. For the most part, Devil's Knot does that, which makes it a worthy, if more general, recounting of the West Memphis Three case.

( out of four)

Devil's Knot is unrated PG-13 but contains adult language and disturbing images. The running time is 1 hour and 54 minutes.

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