Toronto 2013: Do we need a West Memphis Three drama even if it's good?

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Image Credit: Film Images

Devil’s Knot, a docudrama about the tangled and still-loaded West Memphis Three case, directed by Atom Egoyan, is for the most part a tense and absorbing movie. It’s the intelligent, detail-jammed, well-executed version of what we used to call “a TV movie” — a phrase you can’t really use anymore, since it once connoted a certain second-rate, connect-the-dots Madame Tussauds biopic quality that’s become irrelevant in the age of HBO. (There was never a “TV movie” like Behind the Candelabra or Recount.) Yet that term also summoned up the basic, childlike voyeuristic appeal of seeing interesting actors inhabit the roles of tabloid figures — celebrities, criminals, or both — who get famous for unspeakable behavior. Be honest: Wouldn’t you like to see a down-and-dirty TV movie about the Casey Anthony case? (Actually, there was one, but it was awful. I say: Cast Emily Blunt now!) And the West Memphis Three case, though it’s been dealt with in the media for years as — rightly — a dead-serious episode of egregious injustice, remains, at its dark heart, a river of homicidal mystery boiling with undertows of evil.

Egoyan, who sells himself as a hyper-cerebral, puzzle-happy filmmaker, has, in fact, always been drawn to tales of lurid sin and homicide (Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, Where the Truth Lies, the criminally overlooked Felicia’s Journey), and he’s the right director for Devil’s Knot. He knows that this is a story a lot of us already know, and by turning it into scripted and acted drama, he allows us to peep and peer at it from assorted different angles. There have, of course, been four documentaries about the case — the three Paradise Lost films (at one point the trilogy’s co-directors, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, become characters in Devil’s Knot), and also Amy Berg’s West of Memphis — but by far the most in-depth, probing, and artful attempt to ever get to the bottom of this case was the 2002 book Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three, a brilliant piece of investigative reporting by the veteran Arkansas Times writer Mara Leveritt. She hunted down every clue and theory, deconstructed the transcripts of behind-closed-door police interviews, and drew portraits of the principals that were far more complex than those popularized by the movies and the media.

Most notably, Damien Echols, the young man who was railroaded in the case not because he was guilty but because the cops and prosecutors fastened onto someone they could portray as a violent, blood-drinking, deeply-disturbed goth Satanist, was in fact a violent, blood-drinking, deeply disturbed goth Satanist. (He had a history of violent episodes, he’d spent more than his share of time in mental wards, and his interest in “wicca,” which made him sound like a hippie astrologist, was just the tip of the occult iceberg.) Egoyan, in adapting Leveritt’s book (as well as other sources of information), deals with the real Damien, the one who carved the name of his girlfriend into his arm. In the movie, he’s played by James Hamrick, who nails Damien’s pale-wraith perversity — the way that a dude who became the victim of a community conspiracy responded to it by playing up what a weirdo he was.

But Devil’s Knot isn’t Heavy Metal Witch Hunt: The Damien Echols Story. Its two central characters are Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), the mother of one of the victims, and Ron Lax (Colin Firth), the private investigator who lent his services to Echols and ended up uncovering key points of evidence in the case. The movie takes the form of a complex whodunit. Egoyan certainly demonstrates how a long-black-coat-wearing, death-metal teenager like Damien and his disaffected, mullet-haired runt friends, Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwhether) and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. (Kristopher Higgins), were seized on by a small-town Southern police force looking for scapegoats. What he really digs into, though, is the enigma of the various false confessions, which suggest fantastic untruths taking on a life of their own, much as they did during the schoolteacher child-abuse witch hunts of the ’80s. The movie sucks the audience into the power of the confessions, then shows us what really happened. And it makes a fascinating, and convincing, suggestion: that by the time the case went to its two separate trials, the cop who was heading up the investigation, though he gave firebreathing interviews, suspected in his heart that Damien and company were innocent. How could he not? Forced confessions aside, there was never a shred of physical evidence against them.

As John Mark Beyers, the ghoulishly gangling, slow-drawling fire-and-brimstone hulk who spent so much time showboating for the cameras in the first Paradise Lost film that he turned himself into the case’s key alternate suspect, Kevin Duran nails that Bible Belt Boris Karloff look and woozy, deep-molasses voice, but Colin Firth, as the movie’s hero, looks a little too trim and urban and out of place amid all these wide-bellied rednecks. Yet Firth is a natural to play a detective; he exudes the desire to know. It’s Witherspoon who does the film’s most quietly affecting acting as Pam, who finds her dead child’s pocket knife amid the possessions of her husband, Terry (Alessandro Nivola), who was the kid’s stepfather. Her desperation for justice takes her in one direction, but her inner need for truth starts to lead her in another.

I was held by Devil’s Knot, and that’s why I’m giving it more credit that a lot of people did in Toronto. If, like me, you’re a bit of a West Memphis Three junkie (and by that I don’t mean to trivialize the 20-year ordeal of three unjustly imprisoned men), then the movie will scratch your TV-movie itch. Except that it fails to do so in one way, and it’s here, I think, that Egoyan’s quizzical, aestheticized view of things leads him to make a cop-out of a choice. Simply put: After all this, he should have dared the shock value of showing the murders. Because that, in the end, is what we want to know: how such a thing could ever have happened. If this movie claims to be an investigation into evil, then by all means, in the end, we should be looking evil in the face, not waiting to see it in — heaven help us — another goddamn movie about this case.

* * * *

About 10 years ago, I decided that Lukas Moodysson might be the greatest filmmaker working outside of America. A native of Sweden, he had made Together (2000), an acerbically enchanting comedy about a ’70s commune in Stockholm — one of the only films I’d seen that understood why the counterculture had to end — and then Lilya 4-Ever (2003), a wrenching drama of sex trafficking that’s still the only great movie made about the slavery of our time. But then Moodysson began to disappear into a fog of indulgence. Right after Lilya, he did a disturbingly odd drama about some amateur pornographers, A Hole in the Heart (2004), that was one of the most pointlessly unpleasant films I have ever sat through (it seemed to be conceived to punish the audience), and now, after a couple of other misfires, he’s at Toronto this week with We Are the Best! All I can say is that a filmmaker who once showed the humanity of Jean Renoir now seems to be continuing in a spirit of misplaced aggression.

The weird thing is that We Are the Best! comes on like a return to form. It’s a 1982 period piece, shot in the deadpan-breezy jump-cut style that Moodysson patented on his terrific first feature, Show Me Love (1998), and it’s also about teenagers, but in this one, not only are the kids not all right; they’re not even vaguely fun or interesting. Moodysson, adapting a Ghost World-lite graphic novel by his wife, Coco Moodysson, tells the story of two 13-year-old punkettes who look like they’re 10: dour, squirrelish Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Groson), who’s a chipmunk-cute Marxist Debbie Downer. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie about punks who were this trivially childish, this unformed. The sloganeering anti-parent, anti-capitalist dogma that makes up their dialogue (I would hesitate to call it conversation) is delivered with a chilly, monotonous lack of affect that is not very 1982, and the thing is: That’s all there is to them. They never show any feelings, and this seems to be Moodysson’s way of saying to his audience: You want feelings? Forget it, I’m now too hip for that. And so are these daft punk movie kids!

After a while, Bobo and Klara find a third wheel, which lets them move up from being a duo to a clique. Her name is Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne, the best thing in the movie), and she’s a Christian-youth-group type without a group — a highly skilled and beautiful classical guitarist. She needs a friend, and after finding two of them in Bobo and Klara, she sheds her golden locks and becomes a punk too. I never believed this scenario, but I believed that Moodysson believed it, because I fear that he’s become a filmmaker whose compulsion to show off how provocative he is has trumped his desire to locate and reveal human truth.

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