Unusual Suspects: Atom Egoyan Revisits the Story of the West Memphis Three

Seth Meriwether, James Hamrick and Kristopher Higgins, from left.
Seth Meriwether, James Hamrick and Brandon Carroll, from left.

The prolific Canadian director Atom Egoyan, whose work has never met with much success elsewhere, travels far afield from his usual territory for another of his penetrating but slow-moving studies in one of his favorite subjects—the psychological impact of tragedy on the citizens of small towns (see The Sweet Hereafter). This time, an international cast joins the focus in a film about the West Memphis Three, a trio of Arkansas teenagers accused of murdering three young boys in a tightly knit Southern town in 1993. The case remains unsolved, and criminologists still consider it one of the most egregious examples of wrongful conviction in American history.       

Devil’s Knot ★★
(3/4 stars)

Written by: Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson
Directed by:
Atom Egoyan
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Reese Witherspoon and Mireille Enos
Running time: 114 min.

It’s a tale that has already been well told in a series of documentaries called Paradise Lost. Because of all the bizarre circumstances, it is still worth telling, but despite the presence of such marquee lures as Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon and Amy Ryan, Mr. Egoyan’s fascination and research don’t really shed any new light on the case. Don’t let that deter you. I was mesmerized by the story that polarized the country, about three goth kids who didn’t fit in, standing out in a town of simple values and religious fervor because they were into heavy metal and erratic behavior. So they were arrested, tried and sentenced—two to life in prison and the third to death—without evidence. The case is revisited with painstaking detail, and a riveting picture emerges once again about misunderstood outsiders.         

It began on a bright spring day in May 1993, when three 8-year-olds went missing and an entire community went viral with terror, stress and emotional panic. Dane DeHaan, the anemic-looking young actor who specializes in playing troubled teens (he’s currently the villainous Green Goblin in The Amazing Spider-Man 2) adds another portrait of damaged goods to his portfolio as the chief suspect. The locals believed the three defendants were members of a satanic cult and were ready for a lynching before they even got to court. Mr. Firth plays the voice of reason—the balanced, logical and unbiased private investigator Ron Lax, who was sympathetic to the underprivileged defendants and reluctant to jump to conclusions against people just because they were different. Ms. Witherspoon, in a country role down home as a blackberry cobbler, plays Pam Hobbs, the mother of one of the murdered boys, who continues her search for truth and justice to this day.   

The film is more of a docudrama than a traditional narrative, so I found it sometimes lacking in dramatic conflict, but the screenplay by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson is so well researched that it grips you anyway, pulling you into the vortex of a story as complex and relevant as today’s headlines. Using actual court records, as well as interviews with parents and neighbors and journalistic reports of the trial coverage, Mr. Egoyan rehashes the transcripts, uncovering conflicting testimonies and revealing misinformation and a lot of unfounded reports of satanic worship that helped convict the accused. The police lost blood samples that could have established innocence without a doubt, an incompetent judge determined to bury the defense attorney’s police records, and there is actual proof of both perjury and attempts to bribe witnesses. No wonder it’s a case that deserves another look.

In case there are still people unfamiliar enough with the story to find the revelations shocking, I will reveal no more. But it’s compelling, disturbing and a revitalized look at both the adults whose world was shattered by senseless tragedy and the young people who were used as scapegoats for ignorance. Devil’s Knot addresses myriad points of view to challenge the conscience, make us cynically aware of the weaknesses of due process and question the abuses of power in the American justice system—deeply unsettling but highly recommended. Unusual Suspects: Atom Egoyan Revisits the Story of the West Memphis Three