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TORONTO – Two years ago, TIFF attendees saw the conclusion of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky‘s Paradise Lost trilogy, documenting the wrongful conviction and hard-won release of the West Memphis Three; at Sundance the next year, we saw Amy Berg‘s West of Memphis, a single-film treatment bringing new evidence to bear on the same subject. Now comes Atom Egoyan‘s Devil’s Knot, a dramatization focusing on the period between the murder of three young boys in West Memphis, Ark., and the conviction of three teens who clearly didn’t kill them. Far from being overkill, the well-conceived drama featuring A-listers Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth in key roles, will bring this infuriating tale of injustice to many mainstream moviegoers for the first time; it has every hope of receiving a strong commercial reception and attracting even more attention to a horrifying crime whose perpetrator or perpetrators remain free.
Witherspoon plays Pam Hobbs, mother of one of the victims, Stevie Branch. We meet her as she walks the cheerful boy home from school, then stands at the kitchen sink, watching her son bike away for the last time. Her emotional state over the coming year — from the panic on that first night, looking for her missing child, to her post-trial suspicions that the wrong people were jailed — represents the perspective of victims’ families here. Her strained relationship with husband Terry (Alessandro Nivola), who copes with the loss much differently, increasingly illustrates the conflict between wanting to close the book and allowing seeds of doubt to grow.
The disappearance of Stevie and two friends is followed by a search in the woods reminiscent of the solemn hunt for a murdered girl in Egoyan’s Exotica. But unlike that structurally complex film, this one plays straight with chronology, seeming to respect the real-world suffering of its subjects too much to distract from it with formal artistry. The small amount of information-withholding it does — at the start of the investigation phase, we see nothing suggesting unethical behavior or incompetence by the police — works to help the viewer identify with locals who assumed the case was closed when officials charged three teens and were desperate to see them punished.
Of those boys — Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin — only Echols (James Hamrick) gets much attention from the film. A heavy metal-loving brooder who had studied the occult and sometimes exaggerated his interests to get a rise out of clueless adults, Echols couldn’t have made a better suspect in the early ’90s, when paranoia about “Satanic Ritual Abuse” was rampant and self-styled experts (like Echols’ parole officer, played by Egoyan regular Elias Koteas) were convinced that small towns everywhere harbored clusters of murderous devil-worshipers. Hamrick plays down Echols’ bad attitude, particularly once the trial begins, exposing the vulnerability of an 18-year-old many found easy to view as a monster.
Though this is not a legal-hero story (that narrative’s arc would span almost two decades), the film centers on the efforts of a local investigator, Ron Lax (Firth), who committed to working on the defendants’ case for free even when he thought they were probably guilty. At first motivated solely by his opposition to the death penalty, Lax digs up enough to upset prosecutors; police harassment of his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) is the film’s first sturdy suggestion that something is afoul in the case.
Firth employs Lax’s post-divorce loneliness, illuminating the man’s willingness to be an outsider as he increasingly comes to believe that Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin are innocent. Seeming to invest more effort and time, uncompensated, than the public defenders employed to defend them, he learns of buried evidence and deeply problematic eyewitness testimony. Egoyan keeps an emotional lid on courtroom suppression of these discoveries without making the scene lifeless; after the verdict comes in, with Echols given the death penalty, the film envisions just a hint of the direction continuing investigations would go before concluding with informative titles.
Tech values are consistently strong, with Mychael Danna‘s score particularly effective. A closing dedication to the three murdered children is more moving than many such gestures, reminding us that while prosecutorial sins have kept this story alive as one of three teen lives stolen by the state, three even younger boys were robbed of something much greater.
Production: Worldview Entertainment
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth, Alessandro Nivola, James Hamrick, Seth Meriwether, Kris Higgins, Amy Ryan, Robert Baker, Kevin Durand, Collette Wolfe, Bruce Greenwood
Director: Atom Egoyan
Screenwriters: Paul Harris Boardman, Scott Derrickson
Producers: Elizabeth Fowler, Richard Saperstein, Clark Peterson, Christopher Woodrow, Paul Harris Boardman
Executive producers: Molly Conners, Maria Cestone, Sarah Johnson Redlich, Hoyt David Morgan, Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley Jr., Mara Leveritt, Holly Ballard, David Alper, Jacob Pechenik, Michael Flynn
Director of photography: Paul Sarossy
Production designer: Phillip Barker
Costume designer: Kari Perkins
Editor: Susan Shipton
Music: Mychael Danna
No rating, 114 minutes
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