Devil’s Knot: Reese Witherspoon In Satanic Panic Thriller

Distinguished director Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot is a fact based dramatic feature delving into the notorious and still controversial 1993 West Memphis Three child murder court case, involving the disappearance, torture and drowning of three second grade boys. And which arrives on screen with considerable cultural baggage preceding it.

Including not only countless books and documentaries, but an abundance of investigative articles and studies demanding the convictions of the three accused teens in question be revisited. But that continues to fall on Arkansas bible belt deaf ears, despite all sorts of questionable judicial procedures plaguing the original case.

All of which is related to evidence rendered dubious, with the more recent introduction of DNA investigations in criminal cases. And that would seem to both exonerate the long incarcerated but recently released trio, and raise questions about other potential suspects never previously pursued.

Reese Witherspoon lends emotional depth and despair to a relatively slim role, as the grieving mother of one of the slain, tortured, bound and naked young boys found in a local creek. And Colin Firth provides a compassionate conscience to the narrative, as the town’s grim gumshoe not buying the judicial scenario. While the slice of southern regional life surrounding the ensuing events, plays out with a solemn even when eccentric authenticity, consciously bypassing caricature.

And Oscar nominated Egyptian born, Canadian director Egoyan [The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica], rather than rehashing the long obvious detials, seems to have considerably more on his mind with Devil’s Knot. Namely, a US culture that has repeatedly thrived on difference intolerance and demonization. And in this case seemingly convicting the three youth in question, based mostly on their interest in satanic lore and rituals. Along with a widespread terror among this insular, deeply religious community that came to be known at the time as ‘satanic panic.’ Lending a rather ironic twist and spontaneously horror movie tone, to the Devil’s Knot film title in question.

And though criticism has been leveled against Devil’s Knot in the nature of skimming over the facts at hand, that approach may in fact be an alternate bid to bring something new and different to the table beyond the already overly visited details. And essentially delving not into so much how, as why. And providing both a social and historical context to the alternately tragic and bizarre proceedings. Which in this case, makes bitter mention through one of the suspects – the accused satanic cult ringleader Damien Echols, who was singularly sentenced to death – that the perceived witch hunt bears frightening similarities to the 1792 Salem Witch Trials just about 200 years earlier, condemning many innocents as the perpetrators of witchcraft.

And to further place the hysteria surrounding the West Memphis Three trials in context, it should be noted that all sorts of questionable accusations and false witness testimonies surfaced against the West Memphis Three, just months following the first Al Qaeda linked World Trade Center bombing in February 1993. Raising widespread alarm about a different kind of religious fanaticism, and fear of all Muslims in general. Then there’s the bible belt conformity in a traditionally uneasy coexistence with any religious differences, let alone satanism.

Additionally speculated but not pursued in Devil’s Knot, were suspicions arising that the sensationalistic trial at hand conveniently served as a coverup of imminent charges the local authorities were facing, concerning disappeared drug seizures.

And years later, when the unrelenting, numerous far-reaching advocates for the convicted youth finally succeeded in discrediting the Memphis authorities involved in the case, the latter initiated a bizarre deal with the three imprisoned males. Namely, that they could be released on parole under what is known as the Alford Plea. Which would allow them to officially proclaim their innocence, but only with acknowledgement that there is still enough evidence to convict them. Go figure.

And though the defense and advocates of the Memphis Three continue to pressure for a retrial, their persistent pleas have been turned own. Meanwhile, in an additional bit of irony, Damien Echols – who was accused of being the satanic cult leader – has since relocated to Salem, Massachusetts.

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.