When three children were murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993, the case quickly developed into a massive media spectacle.
After just a month of investigating, police arrested three teenagers, and the case was quickly taken to trial. Known as the “West Memphis Three,” they were found guilty based on rather flimsy evidence and accusations that they belonged to a satanic cult. The reason? They listened to heavy metal, wore a lot of black and read the works of occultist author Aleister Crowley. Supporters of the teens, including actors Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder, launched a massive protest in response.
In 1996, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky released a definitive documentary on the trio titled “Paradise Lost.” Sequels came out in 2000 and 2011, and in that same year the West Memphis Three were released from prison. The so-called ringleader, Damien Echols, had been on death row, while Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin were serving life sentences.
Filmmaker Atom Egoyan had already been at work on “Devil’s Knot,” a fictional narrative based on events surrounding the murders and subsequent trial, and was floored when news came in of the trio’s release — the result of a plea bargain that did not stipulate the boys’ (now grown men) innocence.
“I felt that the state was exonerating their own selves,” Egoyan tells The Japan Times. “It wasn’t the boys they were letting off the hook so much as lifting pressure from themselves. No one was admitting they had made a mistake. No one was dealing with the 18 years those boys were in prison. They didn’t have to find the answer anymore. I mean, let’s think about it: In 1993, three 8-year-old boys disappeared, were found brutalized and dead, and three other boys in their teens were arrested. Now we’ll never know what happened. And the state was saying they’re OK with that, but that was something I never wanted to say.”
Egoyan is a storyteller of great depth and imagination. His 1997 breakthrough film “The Sweet Hereafter” is certainly one of the most important films of the late 20th century. Born in Cairo, and having grown up in British Columbia, Canada, his gaze upon Western contemporary society has always been that of the outsider: intrigued, mystified, sometimes angry and always wanting to know what lies beneath the surface.
“I was taking a very huge risk with the film,” Egoyan says. “To be honest, I would have liked to have written it in a different way, one with more of a resolution, but I realized I can actually situate it as a piece of contemporary mythology with absolutely no conclusion. I know this is frustrating for the audience, but at the same time I wanted to stress that this was a condition of humanity. I was using the dramatic focus of a real-life event to meditate on a certain idea.”
“Devil’s Knot” opens with a harrowing sequence of the discovery of three small bodies. The children — Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore — had gone to play in Robin Hood Hills, a favorite play spot in the area. When dusk came and none of them returned home, the West Memphis Police Department launched a massive search that ended tragically and permanently damaged the local community.
“The crime scene was clean, nothing was messed up and the ground where the bodies were lying . . . it was practically pristine,” Egoyan says. “Only the horribly mutilated, naked little bodies. Their limbs were tied up with their own shoelaces. How could such an event be explained? It was almost like an experiment, a procedure carried out with meticulous care. It was inexplicable that something like this could happen in a small town.”
Reese Witherspoon plays Stevie’s mother, Pam Hobbs, and her performance here ranks among the finest in her career. Makeup free and playing a working-class mom in the Deep South, Witherspoon gives herself over to a role that calls for a gradual transformation from unbearable grief to gnawing suspicion.
“Devil’s Knot” circles around her doubts and fears, hinting at a possible culprit without making outright accusations. Colin Firth plays Ron Lax, a defense-team investigator who’s convinced the prosecutors are making a terrible mistake and who goes to great length to prove the boys’ innocence.
“Both Pam and Ron reach the same conviction, but in different ways,” Egoyan says. “What I loved about Ron Lax was that he had no power in the courtroom. He was shut out from the trial at one point because he initially came into the case as a private investigator — no one was on his side. Yet he kept questioning the boys’ guilt, questioning the judicial system, and he didn’t give up.
“Pam was the same; she wanted Stevie’s killer brought to justice but then started to question her own feelings. Did she just want an easy way out at the expense of three other boys? In my view, the most noble characteristic of the human mind is the will to question. But when something this tragic happens, people don’t want to question, they want immediate answers. And I think that ultimately, this was at the bottom of the West Memphis Three case.”
“Devil’s Knot” was released in the United States last year, and one of the criticisms flung at it was that it didn’t bring forth any new revelations. On top of that, critics were already talking about the Monte Hellman-directed “West Memphis Three,” which will open Stateside on Nov. 17 and stars Chloe Sevigny and Jacob Reynolds (there’s no Japan release date as of yet). That film is expected to shed more light on the case than “Devil’s Knot” does, but Egoyan says he isn’t concerned with that aspect.
“The most important thing is to reopen this book,” he says. “The more people know about the case and meditate upon the events, the better.”
Egoyan adds that “Devil’s Knot” is also an observation of the American South. He visited the crime scene, did extensive field research and was “astonished by peoples’ very strong sense of religion. In a case like this, you’d think they would have first arrested a black man. But this case isn’t about race, it’s about religion. In the American South, there is a great border between God and Satan, the righteous and wicked. An incident like this was clearly the work of the devil and they wanted to keep it that way. That mood and that mind-set . . . it was still there 20 years later. I found that fascinating and frightening.”
“Devil’s Knot” is now playing in cinemas across the country. For more information, visit www.devilsknot.jp.
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