“Based on a True Story”. This is one of those pieces of text that floats across our movie screens that is truly hard to even understand what it means. Reduced to legalese, we live in a world where a film that attempts to retell a historical event with painstaking detail is categorized next to a film that has an event that kinda happened once, according to one person. So when that infamous proclamation appears in Atom Egoyan’s latest “Devil’s Knot”, it’s hard to have a real reaction.
In defense of the film, those words have possibly never been more applicable than within Devil’s Knot’s running time. Egoyan goes through great lengths to go point by point through the actual case of the real life trial of the West Memphis Three, a case made famous by the three documentaries following the case, “Paradise Lost”. That dedication to accuracy is probably what that original proclamation was meant to portray. This is a true story.
Unfortunately though, the faithful reenactment of truths does not necessarily make film interesting. Even within a documentary there is usually some humanity, some point-of-view that allows a certain artistic interpretation of the truth, not just a point by point retelling of facts. In Egoyan’s approach of linear fact delineation we lose much of the humanity that made this real life case so personal to so many people. The tragedy was within the people and their broken lives, not within the events alone. Strangely, “Paradise Lost” captured more of that hazy experience of human suffering more than this creative interpretation of those same events.
The characters here, which are all based on real people obviously, have no real time to develop any dimension beyond the surface-level that is needed for the plot. Devil’s Knot and Egoyan seem so intent on laying out the sequence of events that everything else is left on the wayside. The problem is that the “everything else” that is left out of this movie is what makes narrative film so powerful. Those moments of humanity, those indescribable moments of human experience captured in a visual way that instantly speaks to every viewer. There are very few moments the films spares for grief or anything beyond a strict retelling of the facts.
Adding to this superficiality is Egoyan’s personal leanings towards a theatrical style. While this style has served him well in the past, in Devil’s Knot it adds another layer of separation between the material and the emotion around it. Most sets, look like just that, fake surroundings. Everything seems staged and ready for a scene change at any moment. Remember those plays in elementary school when a lanky boy comes on stage with a fuzzy, fake beard and says “How am I, Abraham Lincoln, to speak at Gettysburg today?” Devil’s Knot is in that camp. Everything on display is a true representation of the actual events, but it all seems so hollow. The suspension of disbelief and world building never really manage to elevate to the level of the power of the events that actually unfolded.
So with three excellent documentaries and countless books and interviews in the public consciousness does Devil’s Knot add anything to the West Memphis story? Sadly, the answer has to be no. The real power of turning the real life story into a fictionalized account is the ability to embellish and focus on those small moments that can never be explained but can be shown. Hours and hours of talking heads can never convey the emotion in a single personal moment. Unfortunately, Devil’s Knot never pauses long enough to capture any of those moments, choosing instead to capture the same factual moments we have all seen before. But this time, they feel like a quant reenactment.