Last year ago a documentary called “West of Memphis” detailed the gruesome murders of three children, the subsequent trial of teenagers Jessie Misskelley Jr, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, the court case that found them guilty and, finally, the evidence that suggested otherwise.
It was an in-depth look at a case that had already inspired three documentaries in the Paradise Lost series and a number of books.
Now comes “Devil’s Knot,” director Atom Egoyan’s dramatization of the events leading up to the murders and the “Satanic panic” that fuelled the hysteria surrounding the subsequent trial.
The movie’s first twenty minutes captures the easy-going pace of life in West Memphis, Arkansas. It’s into this dreamy setting that Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon) sends her young son off to play with a friend. She never sees her son alive again. After a massive search the boy and two others are found, hogtied and naked at the bottom of a stream, ominously called Devil’s Creek.
Blame for the deaths falls to three teens—Misskelley Jr (Kristopher Higgins), Echols (James Hamrick) and Baldwin (Seth Meriwether)—outsiders, heavy metal fans and suspected Satanists.
“You don’t look like that when you’re a normal person,” says Pam, taking in Damien’s all black attire and detached demeanor.
The case, ripe with flimsy evidence, attracts the attention of investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth) who senses that the teens are being railroaded because they are different. “A town loses three of its children,” he says, “and then sacrifices three more in the name of revenge.”
The rest of the story is well documented. The three are found guilty and serve eighteen years until the three were offered an Alford Plea, a little used petition that sees them released from prison on the proviso that they plead guilty to the crime.
In the past the story has usually been told from the point of view of the “killers” and their supporters. “Devil’s Knot” focuses on the Hobbs family—including stepfather Terry, who, it is suggested may have been involved in the killing—and the private investigator. It’s a slightly different take on the tale, although the details are familiar from the other retellings of the story.
The connect-the-dots procedural is buoyed by some top-flight performances. As Vicki Hutcherson, a woman tempted by Echols’ charisma, Mireille Enos is a live wire and Witherspoon deftly captures the grief of a mother and the skepticism of someone who is not buying into her town’s lynch mob mentality.
“Devil’s Knot” does a good job of telling a fascinating, if somewhat familiar story. Fans of the “Paradise Lost” and “West of Memphis” movies won’t find much new information here, but Egoyan has stripped away the clinical nature of the documentary to reveal the personalities behind the headlines.