Steve Branch, Chris Byers, and James Moore were three eight-year-olds who became murder victims. Their names are not nearly as well-known as Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, the young men -- known as the West Memphis Three -- who served 17 years in prison after being convicted, most likely wrongly, of the crime. The case drew a great deal of attention for how the trio of defendants were railroaded, but the better parts of Atom Egoyan's docudrama Devil's Knot focus on the families of the deceased.
Reese Witherspoon plays Steve Branch's mother Pam, who is overcome with grief after the murder of her son. She is lost in a haze after this tragic turn of events, and only starts to come around after Ron Lax (Colin Firth), a private investigator working pro bono for the defense team, begins to unearth a number of discrepancies and deceptions in the state's case. There seems to be more than enough evidence to raise a reasonable doubt and acquit the three defendants, but the powers that be continually prevent these facts from being heard by the jury.
Pam soon begins to question her own beliefs about what happened to her son. Why does her husband have Stevie's favorite knife? Who was the mysterious, bloodied black man who showed up and quickly disappeared from a fast-food place near the crime scene on the night of the murder? Why doesn't the jury know that another teen also confessed to the crime? At the same time, Ron works tirelessly to locate the proof that will get the three young men acquitted.
Egoyan already made one of the definitive portraits of grief with his film The Sweet Hereafter, in which an entire community is rocked by the tragic deaths of a number of kids in a school-bus accident. The first 20 minutes of Devil's Knot lead you to believe that he's going to take the same approach with this movie, exploring how a horrific crime alters a small town, but instead he stays focused on how one woman deals with such a profound and sudden loss.
There are scenes -- like the one in which Pam sees a completed but ungraded homework assignment by her dead son and drives to the school so that his teacher, who at that moment is dealing with a roomful of Stevie's former classmates, can grade it -- that border on manipulative. Yet Witherspoon is admirably restrained throughout, and Egoyan's typically cerebral direction keeps us at a distance from the hurt and pain --- he doesn't add any unnecessary pathos -- even as he shows Pam's suffering clearly. Only at the very end, in a golden-toned final shot of the victims as they make their way to the murder site (while text informs us that the movie is dedicated to Steve, Chris, and James), does Egoyan twist the emotional knife.
The West Memphis Three have already been the subject of three peerless documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, as well as the nonfiction film West of Memphis, made with the cooperation of Damien Echols. Those pictures all provide a much more substantive overview of the case than Devil's Knot does: Egoyan's by-the-numbers movie might be fascinating to viewers unfamiliar with the controversy, but as it evolves into a straightforward courtroom tale, it will be tedious to those who have seen the earlier documentaries.