Welcome to the House of Crouse. West of Memphis, is a documentary from Oscar nominated director Amy Berg, details the efforts to find justice for Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and James Baldwin, collectively known as the West Memphis Three. Last week I saw a tweet from Echols–“I walked off of death row exactly 5 years ago today.”–and was inspired to go back into the HoC vault to find chats with Echols, his wife Lorris Davis and Berg. It’s fascinating stuff, so c’mon in and sit a spell and listen in.
Bruce Greenwood first met director Atom Egoyan in a singles bar. “Atom was alone in the corner and I felt sorry for him,” says Greenwood. “We were introduced by a mutual friend.”
That was in the early 1990s, when Egoyan was on the brink of international acclaim as a director and Greenwood was a film and television star with a handful of movies and recurring roles on St. Elsewhere and Knots Landing under his belt. That chance meeting led to their first film together, Exotica, a study of loneliness and desire in a lap-dancing club that Roger Ebert called “a deep, painful film” in his four-star review. “We became good friends during that process,” said Greenwood, “and in the ensuing years.”
Three years later the pair collaborated on The Sweet Hereafter, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Russell Banks about the effects of a tragic bus accident on the population of a small town. Greenwood earned a Genie Award nomination playing a grieving father and in 2002 readers of Playback voted it the greatest Canadian film ever made.
Next was a small role in Ararat, Egoyan’s story of a young man whose life is changed during the making of a film about the Armenian genocide, and then, in 2013, a cameo in Devil’s Knot. Greenwood played a judge in Egoyan’s retelling of the events leading up to the West Memphis Three murders and the “Satanic panic” that fuelled the hysteria surrounding the subsequent trial of teenagers Jessie Misskelley Jr., Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin.
These days Greenwood is best known for his work as Capt. Christopher Pike in the 2009 Star Trek film and its sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, but he’s not too busy in Hollywood — the Quebec-born actor has lived in Los Angeles since the late 1980s — to reteam with his Canadian cohort. In Egoyan’s new psychological thriller, The Captive, Greenwood joins stars Ryan Reynolds, Scott Speedman, Rosario Dawson and Mireille Enos in a story of a child kidnapping. Egoyan says he and Greenwood share a shorthand that makes for easy work on set. As for Greenwood, he says he trusts the director, “more than anyone I’ve ever worked with. He can ask me to do anything and if my initial instinct is ‘Oh no,’ it ends up being the right idea. He’s a tremendous guy.”
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.
West of Memphis, a new documentary from Oscar nominated director Amy Berg, details the efforts to find justice for Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and James Baldwin, collectively known as the West Memphis Three.
Convicted on dubious evidence in 1994 of the murder of three young boys, they became a cause celeb, with stars like Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder working to exonerate them.
The outcome of the 17-year crusade to earn a new trial for the trio is well known — no spoilers here — and the movie ends on a high note, with the men granted their freedom after 18 years and 78 days in prison.
A year after his release Echols talked about adjusting to life on the outside.
“At the time I got out I had been in solitary confinement for almost a decade,” he told me in September, “so I literally went from being in solitary confinement one day to the next being thrown out into the world.
“Out here it is like having to choose constantly. You make no choices in prison. It takes a lot of effort, a lot of energy. I’m having to learn things all over again. Even like how to go to the bank or use an ATM. Or use a computer.”
Despite being in “a state of deep, deep, profound shock and trauma for at least two months when I first got out,” he says life on the inside was worse.
“The level of stress, anxiety and fear that you live in is beyond comprehension to most people. You never even go to sleep all the way. Just the slightest noise wakes you up. There were times in the prison when you hear a noise and you’re on your feet, ready to fight before your eyes even open up, before you’re even conscious of what’s going on.”
These days he lives in Massachusetts with his wife Lorris (they married while he was behind bars), has written a book titled Life After Death and wants to do Tarot readings at MOMA asm performance art, but the adjustment to life on the outside continues.
“Life since then has been about learning to put one foot in front of the other. I have so much fear and anxiety just about surviving in the world that most of what I’m doing and dealing with is about coping and how to get beyond that. That’s all I’m focused on.”