On May 5, 1993, three young boys — Steve Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore — went missing in the backwater boondocks of West Memphis, Ark. They were found brutally murdered the next day in the Robin Hood Hills area of town. Overwhelmed by the shocking crimes, heretofore unseen in those parts, the community was swept up in the notion of occult involvement and, in the resulting Satanic panic, three young men became the sole aim of the investigation and ensuing witch’s pyre.
This is the story told in Devil’s Knot, a dramatization of the exhaustively researched true crime book of the same name, penned by Mara Leveritt. In it, we witness the tunnel vision of local law enforcement around one man and the two standing next to him: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. Echols is a troubled 18-year-old, long hair, wears black, listens to Metallica and Jason Baldwin is his best friend of the same cultural persuasion; they were both acquainted with the hot-tempered Misskelley from school.
Devil’s Knot focuses largely on Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), mother of Steve Branch, and private detective Ron Lax (Colin Firth), who volunteers his services for the defense after seeing the manner in which the investigation was progressing. While the rest of the Bible Belt burg clamors for an eye for an eye, Hobbs is more concerned with the truth, for therein lie the true culprits, be they Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley — later known as the West Memphis Three — or not. Sickened by the potential injustice, Lax tirelessly works to support the outmatched public defenders for the Three — Val Price (Kristoffer Polaha), Paul Ford (Matt Letscher) and Dan Stidham (Michael Gladis) — amid their frustrations with the unyielding tag team of lead investigator Gary Gitchell (Rex Linn) and Judge David Burnett (Bruce Greenwood).
Silly as it may seem to forestall any spoilers to a movie based on a case that’s garnered international attention for more than two decades (and been the subject of several documentaries), viewers will no doubt see the writing on the wall early in the film. Many of the real-life counterparts to the characters portrayed can be seen throughout the HBO documentary series, Paradise Lost, by Joel Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. While Witherspoon, Lax, Greenwood and Letscher positively nail their performances — as does Kevin Durand as John Mark Byers — they just don’t offer anything close to the understated but visceral emotional connection viewers make with the real characters in Paradise Lost I, II and III.
Devil’s Knot may make for a nice, unassuming vehicle for those unfamiliar with the case to dip their toes in the water before getting caught up in the riptide of greater depths, but it just doesn’t add anything to an already crowded conversation. The acting performances are accurate in comparison to the documentaries, if not a little subdued by virtue of the fact that some of these exact exchanges took place in real life. You’ve got nothing to lose or gain by watching Devil’s Knot, but it won’t exactly keep you tied to your chair.