At their worst, the four documentaries that have examined the tragic case of the West Memphis Three have felt like the work of master ironists. Telling the story of three Arkansas teens convicted of child murders just because two of them wore black and had an interest in the occult, the filmmakers have again and again fought against the very public railroading of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley by holding up other West Memphis, Arkansas, misfits as likelier culprits, in effect riposting the small town presumption that outcast kids must be wicked with the coastal presumption that one of those self-righteous rednecks must be. All credit is due to the filmmakers for fighting for these kids, ultimately helping free them from prison and, in Echols’s case, death row. But Paradise Lost (1996) and Paradise Lost: Revelations (2000) chase a case against John Mark Byers, the adopted father of one of the slain children, and 2012’s West of Memphis gets positively prosecutorial against Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of the murdered Steve Edward Branch.
The docs depict these guys as straight-up shitheels, one a camera hog who won’t shut up about Jesus and justice, and the other an abusive monster. They may both be at heart what the movies have flattened them into, but the finger-pointing and public shaming they’ve endured by advocates of the West Memphis Three feels dispiritingly of a piece with the pitchforks-and-torches certainty that sent Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley up the river in the first place.
The best that can be said of Atom Egoyan’s flat, uninvolving, oddly uncentered Devil’s Knot is that as it reduces Byers and Hobbs to the same shitheel caricatures, it at least doesn’t try to convict. Egoyan, with care that almost justifies the existence of this redundant dramatization, uses the scant evidence against Byers and Hobbs to advance the most reasonable of arguments: Shouldn’t the cops at least have been looking at other suspects? Considering the fact that, on the night of the murders, a blood-covered man no one in town had ever seen before stomped into a Bojangles bathroom to clean himself up, isn’t it mad for anyone outside a forensics lab to be expressing certainty about who must have done it?
Other than that act of honest argumentation, Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot offers little for anyone who has followed the case or seen any of the other docs. Since the most engaging character, Damien Echols, is locked up for most of the film, Egoyan and screenwriters Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman have to crowdsource protagonists. They give us Colin Firth as a P.I. working pro bono for the defense and occasionally flirting limply with a diner waitress, and Reese Witherspoon as Pamela Hobbs, the wife of Terry Hobbs and mother of victim Steven Edward Branch. Witherspoon is adept at grieving in shapeless big-box-store clothes, and it’s refreshing that a movie asks us to sympathize with a downwardly mobile born-again. You can tell that we’re intended to like her even before the deaths, as she listens to “Wade in the Water” while clucking at her kids — in Arkansas in 1993, she’d probably have on Brooks and Dunn or something. But after a couple wrenching scenes of her facing the loss of her son, Witherspoon’s Pamela gets sidelined, just like most of the characters, whose inner lives Egoyan declines to plumb. For the rest of the movie, other than a too-quick scene where Terry Hobbs cartoonishly threatens her, she mostly just turns up in court, witnesses the case’s many unconscionable holes, and occasionally makes a pained, quizzical face, letting us know that she’s thinking “Now, wait a second, here . . .”
The small-town details feel production designed rather than lived in. That goes double for the lives of the men. Hobbs and Byers, played by Alessandro Nivola and Kevin Durand, are imitations of the men glimpsed in the documentaries. Their line readings honor how the real Hobbs or Byers might say them, but the lines themselves don’t address why they might. (If only a Sling Blade–era Billy Bob Thornton, who was attuned to every nuance of rural Southern masculinity, had picked this story up as a writer-director job.) These domestic scenes feel hustled through, like something from a TV movie. Curiously, the actors portraying Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley get too little time to register, much; it’s Echols’s charisma, more than anything else, that likely spurred the world’s interest in their case, so it seems a missed opportunity not to let James Hamrick tear into the part. He’s strong in an interrogation scene, although he looks too old and too certain before his arrest; he seems like the dashing Byronic king of his town rather than an outcast re-reading The Stand in his trailer.
Elsewhere, Egoyan musters some of the power he brought to The Sweet Hereafter, another lost-children tale, but little of the lyric beauty or sense of a community coming unglued. His crane shots of the search before the missing children are discovered stir a sickening dread, and the moment of grisly discovery is terrifying without feeling exploitative.
Still, for newbies to the case, Amy Berg’s West of Memphis stands as the best point of entry, despite its dismaying chase after Hobbs. That said, the three Paradise Lost films, from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, make for fascinating, troubling viewing, especially as they offer the most time with the real Echols, a bright, powerfully likable kid who never even seems that surprised at being sentenced to death before finishing high school. The cover-ups, dead ends, and occasional misguided jeremiads the directors pursue accumulate into an exhausting but definitive account — one that, on occasion, commits variations on the injustice it’s supposed to be exposing.