Directed by Atom Egoyan
The mysterious murders of three eight-year-old boys in Arkansas in 1993—their bodies hidden in a muddy creek, stripped, hogtied with their own shoelaces, one boy’s genitals mutilated—is the sort of lurid true crime that Hollywood producers usually jump at. So why did it take 20 years to cast Reese Witherspoon as one of the grieving mothers? Not that cinema’s lacking for stories about the three teenagers quickly arrested, tried and convicted for the crime, known now as the West Memphis Three: over the course of 15 years, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s directed three Paradise Lost documentaries, following the poor policework, circumstantial cases and outrageous prosection against the supposed perpetrators.
At the end of their third film, the defendants, wrongfully convicted in the opinions of most, are finally released in 2011 thanks to a unique deal with the state. In general, Hollywood doesn’t like its true stories to have loose ends, and the original murders remain unsolved. But because the official response to the crime became a crime in itself, here’s the flood of new movies to deal with that story: the year after Paradise Lost 3, the Peter Jackson-produced documentary West of Memphis hit theaters, and by the end of this year we should see the non-documentary version Monte Hellman’s working on, starring Chloe Sevigny. But first, something a bit statelier and Golden Globes-worthy, perhaps to get some attention from the types who don’t watch documentaries—even though this telling is so dense it can’t even get up to the point when the boys (now men) are released from jail; it barely puts them behind bars within its 120 minutes.
There are a lot of different aspects of the troubled and troubling case that a film adaptation could focus on: the victims and their grieving and suspicious families; the supposed criminals; the perhaps real killers; the cops and lawyers and private investigators. The script for Devil’s Knot, by Scott Derrickson (the horror-movie hack behind The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and his creative partner Paul Harris Boardman, chooses to focus on all of them, creating a dense narrative packed with too many characters, charting a complex investigation that director Atom Egoyan miraculously keeps coherent. (A Berlinger-Sinofsky composite even appears.) The filmmakers’ main way into the story, based on Mara Leveritt’s book, is through Colin Firth as Ron Lax, a skeptical and liberal-minded private investigator who doesn’t buy the devil-worship hysteria that turns the town against the troubled teens. He’s that lovable archetype: the dogged and heroically obsessive investigator (a cliche subverted so smartly by Zodiac).
Still, he’s not so much the star as one point in a cinematic constellation, which also includes the brightly shining Witherspoon, Amy Ryan, Dane DeHaan, Egoyan regulars like Elias Koteas and Bruce Greenwood—the only one missing is Arsinee Khanjian—and others. (Firth’s off interviewing witnesses for the defense while the film also observes the emotional fallout on the survivors as well as the legal morass, the swift railroading of the kids as the case’s almost laughable holes open up.) Since the 90s, when he graduated from the Canadian art-house to the American indie-plex, Egoyan has made ponderous films that increasingly fall just shy of artsy; though this one feels more for-hire (or, “collaborative”) than usual—where are all the means of mediated experience?—he still employs some of his favorite devices: clean visuals, deglamorized stars, and a fragmented narrative structure.
What emerges is a story about scapegoating, how a town struggling to comprehend such brutality could assign simple answers to help them fathom the unfathomable. (For once, Southern injustice isn’t about race; instead, it’s about religious prejudices against heavy metal music and paganism.) The movie is too often schmaltzy, too on the nose in its dialogue and characterizations, but it does get across the pain that comes from realizing that the world is a complicated, unknowable, incomprehensible place with only two real states of being: the blissful comfort of ignorance and the painful uncertainty of knowing that you don’t, and can’t ever, know.
Opens May 9