TIFF Review: 'Devil's Knot'

Great drama is often predicated on inevitability. There is something uniquely reassuring about seeing the trajectory of fiction cohere with preconceptions, of watching as the arrow heads straight toward its mark. This accounts, I think, for the enduring popularity of the docudrama, which in purporting to tell a familiar story promises to reflect reality as we know back to us, smoothing out the wrinkles and inconsistencies of truth and making fact a more palatable fiction. When you watch, say, Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies”, you are acutely aware throughout that John Dillinger was shot and killed by federal agents outside the Biograph Theater in 1934. This awareness animates the drama. When, during the film’s last act, Dillinger pops out to catch a quick movie, the audience can’t help but wince—historical perspective has rendered a benign event tragic, and we are left with the odd satisfaction of seeing fate snap each piece firmly into place.

Every moment in Atom Egoyan’s “Devil’s Knot”, which stars Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth, is governed by certainty. This might seem counterintuitive given that it’s based on a still unsolved murder case, but then the procedural intrigue of an ongoing true crime investigation isn’t really the film’s subject. Predictably, it’s the wrongful conviction and sentencing of the West Memphis Three that “Devil’s Knot” regards as both its dramatic center and opportunity for moral indignation, and it’s our almost universal awareness of the case that makes its drama ostensibly compelling. Everybody, I imagine, knows and accepts by now that Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley are and always were innocent of the crime for which they served nearly twenty years in prison, a fact liberated in recent years from the niche and somewhat conspiratorial realm of documentary filmmaking to mainstream news media and, finally, the legal system itself, which all but publicly conceded its own mistake by granting them freedom under the compromise of an Alford plea in 2011.

To date, of course, there have been four prominent and well-regarded documentaries made on the subject of the West Memphis Three—Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s three “Paradise Lost” films and Amy J Berg’s “West of Memphis”—that together form a crystalline portrait of three innocent teenagers left helplessly in thrall to the self-evidently ludicrous circumstances surrounding their prosecution. This raises certain issues of redundancy. I suppose it was always only a matter of time before these events were duly fictionalized, mind you—this process has it’s own kind of inevitability.

To this end the worst thing you can say of “Devil’s Knot” is that it is a West Memphis Three story remade in a Hollywood style for audiences with no interest in documentaries. But what’s disconcerting is the probability that, even if you are unfamiliar with and have no particular interest in the documentaries already made on this subject, you are nevertheless likely to be familiar with the basic facts of the case, embedded as they so comfortably are within the popular imagination. I find it very unlikely that anybody watching “Devil’s Knot” will enter the theatre certain that the West Memphis Three are guilty and leave convinced otherwise—not because it fails to persuade, but because it simply doesn’t need to. Everybody in the world knows that these boys are innocent. The film therefore has literally nothing to prove.

Which leaves only one thing for it to do: gloat. For most of its running time, “Devil’s Knot” resembles a courtroom thriller—and yet because we know in advance what the court’s verdict will be, there can be no pretense of tension in awaiting the climax of the trial. Instead, a palpable resignation settles in: all we can do is watch helplessly as the machinations of the legal system conspire to obstruct justice and pervert the principles of law. Rather than thrilling, the courtroom sequences seem only enervating, nudging us toward a quiet outrage. Egoyan understands the appeal of this process. “Devil’s Knot” marshals its voluminous research, largely transposed from Mara Leveritt’s true crime book of the same name, toward a portrayal of the investigation and trial as fundamentally absurd, a state of affairs the enlightened viewer is happy to accept. Because we cannot reconcile our awareness of their innocence with the knowledge that they are found guilty, absurdity is the only reasonable or satisfying conclusion we can reach.

Many of the trial sequences have a sort of perverse fascination: the defense team’s case appears so obviously correct, the prosecution’s so skewed and embellished by rhetorical tricks and legal loopholes, that watching it all unfold becomes an exercise in teeth-grinding and head-shaking. In one scene, an “expert witness” for the prosecution is proven by the defense to have a mail-order doctorate which required no classes to attain, but the judge dismisses this complaint without reason and permits the witness testimony to stand. It goes on like this: the defense musters some incredible argument and it is thwarted by a rigged system. Every sustained objection, denied witness testimony, and piece of evidence stricken from the record triggers an intuitive frustration. We see where this is headed. And, goddammit, we know better.

We have the privilege now of both hindsight and amended historical record. But the film weaves both qualities into the fabric of the period anachronistically—rather than at least try to discern how or why a jury might have been convinced of their guilt, the film seems content to merely wallow in retroactive smugness, dismissing things like motivation and belief as basically irrelevant to the stupidity of the case. Egoyan leaves no room for doubt: The judge is biased. The police are duplicitous. The jury is swayed by emotion. It seems obvious in 2013 that the West Memphis Three were wrongfully accused by a town and system swept up by the faddish terror of satanism and the need to understand an unimaginable crime, but it’s important to remember that the very qualities which we see now as having clouded the judgement of reasonable people prevented those people from seeing their own mistakes. To suggest that the conviction was nothing more than a result of stupidity or hate (or, as is alternately intimated by the film, class and religious conviction) is at best disingenuous at at worst unfairly reductive.

In 1996, the year of the first “Paradise Lost”, a film as self-assured in its veracity as “Devil’s Knot” might have been productive, even perhaps daring—it might have helped articulate the truth at a time when it did not seem quite so self-evident to the world. But in 2013, who remains to be compelled or convinced by “Devil’s Knot”? What value is there in telling this story now, and in this way? There is no urgency here, no sense of demand or need. There is only the shallow proposition of entertainment: we can feel good about ourselves for recognizing how apparent the innocence of the West Memphis Three always was, and we can feel the gratification of contempt for a broken legal system and a trial that was clearly decided before it even began. “Devil’s Knot” makes no attempt to solve the mystery of who killed Steve Branch, Christopher Byers, and James Michael Moore, and in fact it rarely seems interested in their deaths except as the catalysts for an extraordinary case. Their deaths were, in a cinematic sense, inevitable, required for drama. And we get to sit back and watch as three men are thrown in prison for 19 years and feel comfortable knowing that if the world is very often summarily unjust, it is at least makes for some good fiction.

SCORE: 4.8 / 10

Movie & TV Awards 2018