Atom Egoyan has carved a career out of films focused on misunderstood and alienated outsiders, whose personal truths are often murky. The case of the infamous West Memphis Three (exhaustively explored in a number of documentaries, including last year’s festival selection “West of Memphis“) would naturally be a draw for Egoyan thematically. However, instead of expounding on where the truth lies (if you will), this somewhat fictionalized narrative remains dead in the turgid water.
Based in part on Mara Leveritt’s case study ‘Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three’, the film follows private investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth) and his attempt to uncover the questionable hidden pieces in the local Memphis Arkansas Police’s case against Damien Echols (James Hamrick), Jessie Misskelley Jr. (Kristopher Higgins) and Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether), the three teenaged outcasts accused of savagely murdering three young boys in the sleepy, close-knit, religious community. The film alternates its perspective from Lax’s investigation to that of Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), mother to one of the three homicide victims.
The numerous judicial injustices are acutely highlighted and could very well elicit shock for the few who are unaware of the case. That is, if the characterization of all parties weren’t written as insultingly stereotypical backwoods caricatures. Screenwriters Paul Harris Boardman (also acting as one of the producers of the film) and Scott Derrickson give each character a laughable one-dimensional persona and the ensemble often seem lifeless as a result. Firth spends the entirety of the film with hollowed eyes dejectedly posing in his dark designer suits, as if auditioning for A Single Man 2, while Witherspoon fares even worse as her role changes schizophrenically from scene to scene.
Second fiddle supporting characters are seen and heard only fleetingly, but are given Southern archetype characteristics just the same. Stephen Moyer plays prosecution attorney John Fogelman as a slick Billy Flynn type, while the always solid Amy Ryan appears briefly in the forgettable role of concerned ex-wife to Firth’s Lax. Egoyan regulars Kevin Durand, Bruce Greenwood, and Elias Koteas also pop up, but one hopes it was merely as a favor to the Canadian director. Only Mireille Enos and Dane Dehaan, who each appear in a couple of brief scenes, manage to make their lazily written characterizations believable. Perhaps executive producers Jason Baldwin and Jessie Miskelley Jr. relished the idea of portraying the people offhandedly responsible for their prison sentences as buffoons, but the audience suffers a sentence of their own by slogging through this weak effort by Egoyan.
Reviewed on September 8 at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival-Special Presentation Programme.