The story of the West Memphis Three has garnered a ton of media attention over the last two decades, and for good reason. It's a classic mix of elements that attract news outlets like bees to honey: murder, satanic cults, corruption, miscarriages of justice, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Since the murdered bodies of three young boys were discovered in an Alabama creek twenty years ago, the case has become a "cause celebre" due to the apparent false imprisonment of accused murderers Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin, seemingly railroaded by a system and town swept up in hysterics. The story was chronicled fully in three incredible Paradise Lost documentaries and the Peter Jackson-produced West of Memphis, leaving little room for Atom Egoyan's narrative feature Devil's Knot to forge its own path.
Given the wealth of material already out there about the West Memphis Three case, Egoyan's decision to take on a dramatic interpretation of events is a mystery. It's a no-win scenario if there ever was one. Get it right and people will say the film basically wrote itself; get it wrong and you get Devil's Knot, which is flimsy, unnecessary, and manages to turn a compelling true story into something dull.
There doesn't seem to be much that co-writers Scott Derrickson (of Sinister fame) and Paul Boardman have done other than take what we already know and get A-listers like Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth to reenact it. Witherspoon takes on the role of Pam Hobbs, who one normal day in 1993 allows her son Steve to go out and play with his friends, warning him to be back in time for her to get to work. But when the boy doesn't show up, it begins a firestorm of rage and accusations that consume this small, devout Southern town. Not that you really get a sense of all that as the film focuses mainly on Hobbs and Colin Firth as southern investigator Ron Lax, who Damien Echols described as a bit player in the whole ordeal. Actually, Echols has been pretty open in his disdain for the movie and it's pretty easy to see why. In overly sentimental, movie-of-the-week fashion it skips over crucial details in the case; particularly troubling when one thinks how a lack of attention to detail is largely what doomed Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin to serve years behind bars for a crime they likely didn't commit.
And so what we get is a thumbnail version of events and the players involved. Firth's Lax is particularly underserved, and the actor struggles to find anything to do with him. If he's truly "obsessed" over the case and making sure the accused go free, then why don't we ever see that passion? Instead we get characters, including the usually-amazing Amy Ryan as his ex-wife, talking at us about it. We get such an idealized, perfectly home-spun version of Hobbs that Witherspoon is left with nothing to do but be sad. There's a lot more to Hobbs' part of this story than this film is willing to portray, and the same goes for her skeevy husband Terry Hobbs (Alessandro Nivola), who in reality DNA evidence fingers as being involved in the murders. But the film tip-toes around that issue and in anything that steers too far away from a narrow and incomplete narrative that only encompass a small piece of a much larger canvas. Dane DeHaan is sorely wasted as a key witness, joined by other top actors who flit in and out without leaving much impact; Mireille Enos, Kevin Durand, Stephen Moyer, and Bruce Greenwood among others. Each of their characters is as thinly drawn as the dubious circumstances surrounding the police investigation, which was driven by religious zealotry, political gamesmanship, and flat-out ignorance.
There just doesn't seem to be much of a reason for this film to exist. It literally says nothing new and what it does say is poorly executed. The film ends with a lousy update that tells us everything that happened with the case over the years, but it only serves to highlight how unfinished Devil's Knot truly is. If someone is looking for a better, far more compelling walkthrough of the unbelievable West Memphis Three story, either hit Wikipedia or rent one of the documentaries instead.