May 22nd 2014
In the first of our new series of Popcorn & Opinions movie reviews by Howard Elias, Devil’s Knot, starring Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, fails to do the gritty true story justice.
Based on the true story of the West Memphis Three, Devil’s Knot begins with the gruesome discovery of the bodies of three young boys who were hogtied and drowned in a creek in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993. The police assumed it was a satanic cult murder, and quickly arrested three young men (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr) for the crime.
Despite the clear lack of forensic evidence to prove their guilt, the men were tried, found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment with one of them receiving a death sentence.
Everyone in West Memphis, from the police, to the jury, the judge and the townspeople, was convinced of their guilt. The only one who wasn’t convinced was private investigator, Ron Lax (Colin Firth), who took it upon himself to gather evidence to prove these men innocent. Unfortunately, the cards were all stacked against him.
If this summary of Devil’s Knot seems like déjà vu to you, there is a good reason for that. Four documentaries have already been made on this subject, with the most recent, West of Memphis, coming out in 2012. And that’s the big problem with Devil’s Knot.
If you’re going to make a dramatised version of a fairly well known event, either cover the whole story or bring something new to the audience. This film is all hamburger but no toppings or bun… and it’s not even good quality hamburger. I’ve seen mediocre TV Movies of the Week that are better than this.
So many parts of Devil’s Knot just didn’t add up. What, for example, was the relationship between little Stevie Branch and his apparent step-father, Terry Hobbs? Where did the bloody knife come from? Then there is the 18-year epilogue, which is equally important to the story but is covered in just a few sentences on the screen at the end of the film.
If Devil’s Knot were made in 1995, it could be excused for telling the story with such a narrow focus. But almost 20 years later, we now know much more about what did and did not happen in that creek in Robin Hood Hills. So why leave so much out?
It’s not surprising that Canadian director Atom Egoyan was drawn to making this film. His works often explore themes of isolation and alienation. The three young men who were found guilty of murdering the three boys were all outsiders in their own community. That’s what made them targets of the police and their neighbours.
But this story is more than just one about being outsiders. It’s really about the travesty of truth and justice that was allowed to take place in a West Memphis courtroom. Unfortunately, to hear that story, you’ll need to watch West of Memphis.
Howard Elias is a Hong Kong-based film critic and film event organiser. You can hear his reviews every Thursday morning at about 8:40am on RTHK Radio 4, and read his reviews anytime on his website at howardforfilm.com.
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