THE TRIAL OF THE MEMPHIS THREE

The Devil’s Knot

Pros: cast, Georgia locations

Cons: script

Atom Egoyan (1960-) has made only one great movie, “The Sweet Herafter” (1997). The 2014 “The Devil’s Knot” seems in theory somewhat similar to that classic in approaching community-wide grief, after three West Memphis, Arkansas are slain, found nude and tied up with their shoe laces. Egoyan and screenwriters Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson were, I think, too inhibited by fidelity to the story of the case that involved massive and repeated police incompetence (or worse), prosecutorial misconduct, and blatant prejudgement by the judge, David Burnett (Bruce Greenwood), that dorky teenagers flirting with Goth fashions were Satanic ritual murderers. The most astounding thing portrayed is the judge’s acceptance as an “expert witness” of someone with a mail-order Ph.D., who took no courses.

Egoyan had lots of acting talent to work with, including Oscar winners Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon. She plays the mother of one of the three slain boys and comes to suspect her husband Terry (Stevie’s step-father, played by Alessandro Nivola) of involvement. Terry orders her not to talk to the pro bono detective, Ron Lax (Firth with some sort of accent), who opposes the death penalty in general, especially for teenagers, and more especially for teenagers who pronably  did not do what they were accused (and convicted) of.

Perhaps to entice the participation of Firth, the screenplay supplied Ron Lax with two romantic interests, a local waitress (Glori Shettles) and the wife (Amy Ryan) who has just divorced him. This leaves no time to explore the parents of the accused, and not much for the mother (Mireille Enos) of a boy who almost certainly was not telling the truth. Witherspoon plays grief and confusion and unwillingess to buy the sensationalist “explanation” of Damien Echols (James Hamrick) and led his followers, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley (Seth Meriwether and Kristopher Higgins) as ritual killers in a local Satanic cult. The second and third most astounding aspects of the legal case are that no serious efforts were made to find a blood-covered (and black!) man who was wet up to the knees, and lost the blood samples from a restaurant bathroom’s walls. Less surprising, alas, is that the jury was prevented from hearing exculpatory evidence by the hanging judge.

 

Damien was not executed and all three were released from prison in 2011, though still classed as “convicted felons” in Arkansas. The case of the 1993 murders was reopened but no charges have been levied. And the movie script does not include a version of what its writers think really happened in 1993, that is, identification of who the murderer or murderers were. The dubious official conduct and lack of credible evidence have been explored in a trio of HBO documentaries (Paradise Lost) and the 2012 documentary “West of Memphis.” Egoyan and company add nothing in the way of imagining the trial, let alone the murder, and do little to show the community grappling for meaning in the losses of young lives (the focus of “The Sweet Atom Egoyan (1960-) has made only one great movie, “The Sweet Herafter” (1997). The 2014 “The Devil’s Knot” seems in theory somewhat similar to that classic in approaching community-wide grief, after three West Memphis, Arkansas are slain, found nude and tied up with their shoe laces. Egoyan and screenwriters Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson were, I think, too inhibited by fidelity to the story of the case that involved massive and repeated police incompetence (or worse), prosecutorial misconduct, and blatant prejudgement by the judge, David Burnett (Bruce Greenwood), that dorky teenagers flirting with Goth fashions were Satanic ritual murderers. The most astounding thing portrayed is the judge’s acceptance as an “expert witness” of someone with a mail-order Ph.D., who took no courses.

Egoyan had lots of acting talent to work with, including Oscar winners Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon. She plays the mother of one of the three slain boys and comes to suspect her husband Terry (Stevie’s step-father, played by Alessandro Nivola) of involvement. Terry orders her not to talk to the pro bono detective, Ron Lax (Firth with some sort of accent), who opposes the death penalty in general, especially for teenagers, and more especially for teenagers who probably did not do what they were accused (and convicted) of.

Perhaps to entice Firth, Ron Lax is supplied with two romantic interests, a local waitress and the wife (Amy Ryan) who has just divorced him. This leaves no time to explore the parents of the accused, and not much for the mother (Mireille Enos) of a boy who almost certainly was not telling the truth. Witherspoon plays grief and confusion and unwillingess to buy the sensationalist “explanation” of Damien Echols (James Hamrick) and led his followers, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley (Seth Meriwether and Kristopher Higgins) as ritual killers in a local Satanic cult. The second and third most astounding aspects of the legal case are that no serious efforts were made to find a blood-covered (and black!) man who was wet up to the knees, and lost the blood samples from a restaurant bathroom’s walls. Less surprising, alas, is that the jury was prevented from hearing exculpatory evidence by the hanging judge.

 

Damien was not executed and all three were released from prison in 2011, though still classed as “convicted felons” in Arkansas. The case of the 1993 murders was reopened but no charges have been levied. The movie script does not include a version of what its writers think really happened in 1993, that is, identification of who the murderer or murderers were. The dubious official conduct (including illicit communications introducing evidence not presented in court funnelled through the foreman and illicit out-of-court communication between the judge and a jury member) and lack of credible evidence have been explored in a trio of HBO documentaries (Paradise Lost) and the 2012 documentary “West of Memphis.” Egoyan and company add nothing in the way of imagining the trial, let alone the murder, and do little to show the community grappling for meaning in the losses of young lives (the focus of “The Sweet Hereafter”).


Carterville, Georgia  old Bartow County Courthouse where the movie trial was filmed, photo by NCalvin, Creative Commons release

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