The Doc Option is a column recommending nonfiction works as alternatives to popular dramatic takes on the same or similar stories. In this entry, we recommend that you watch Paradise Lost and West of Memphis.
It almost seems too obvious. From the moment that the production of Devil’s Knot was announced, film lovers the world over noted that it was covering material that had already gone well-trodden by documentaries. And it’s not a case like, say, that time a fiction film and a documentary about the Jack Abramoff scandal came out in the same year. The case of the West Memphis Three has been turned into not one but four docs, and they are anything but low-profile. The movies of the Paradise Lost trilogy are among the best-known, most important documentaries of modern times. And West of Memphis struck at just the right time, just as new developments in the case brought it back into the national spotlight.
But that doesn’t mean that a good adaptation of this story couldn’t have been made. In fact, the story of the West Memphis Three is so ripe for Hollywood exploitation that it’s honestly surprising that it’s taken this long for it to happen. It has everything the Oscars love: incredible tragedy, outrageous injustice, and an ending note of inspirational triumph. But Devil’s Knot botches it very, very badly. Even the more problematic documentaries about the WM3 are preferable to it.
When filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky arrived in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1994 to cover the murder trials of three teenagers, they had no idea what they were in for. The unforgettable Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin stood accused of murdering three young boys the prior summer. Police believed the crime was Satanic in nature and that the murders were part of an arcane ritual.
It quickly became apparent to Berlinger and Sinofsky that all the evidence against the WM3 was circumstantial, that the idea that there was anything ritualistic about the killings was a part of the Satanic Panic of the ’80s and ’90s and that these young men had been singled out because they were weird enough to attract suspicion. The movie they ended up making, Paradises Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, is a verite masterpiece, a modern version of The Crucible in which mass paranoia threatens the innocent and allows the wicked to go unpunished.
That first film generated enough controversy that what may have otherwise gone down as a routine miscarriage of justice instead became a cause celebre. Metallica allowed their music to be used in the film, the first time the band had done so, because they were so moved by the plight of the WM3. Misskelley and Baldwin were sentenced to life in prison, and Echols to death, but a grassroots movement sprung up to try to save them. Berlinger and Sinofsky ended up making two more docs about the case: Paradise Lost 2: Revelations in 2000 and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory in 2011. Ultimately, the WM3 were released from prison, although they are legally still considered guilty of the murders.
Only the first part of the trilogy is really needed as an alternative to Devil’s Knot, since they cover the same time period. I’m of the opinion that Revelations is pretty skippable. It has almost no crucial information and spends most of its runtime on the idea that the stepfather of one of the murdered boys was the true culprit. It focuses so much on his eccentricities (which are in multitudes and of great potency) that the movie is almost doing the same thing that the townspeople were doing in the first film. And yet it’s still preferable to Devil’s Knot, since it’s at least interesting.
At the same time that Berlinger and Sinofsky were working on Purgatory, Amy Berg was making her own film about the case. Unlike Paradise Lost, which rolled out in parts over fifteen years like some shadow version of the Up series, West of Memphis is singular, and it’s able to look at the entire story with hindsight. Thus, it covers in two and a half hours what Paradise Lost does in nearly seven, cumulatively. The approaches taken by each project is different enough that they can comfortably stand next to each other. West of Memphis can’t match the pure outrage evoked by the in-the-moment footage captured in the first Paradise Lost, nor can it hit the same emotional high given by Purgatory, which pays off nearly two decades of frustration with an unexpected glimpse of the light. But it’s an excellent summary of the whole disgraceful affair.
And then there’s Devil’s Knot. Directed by Atom Egoyan and based on the 2002 book of the same name by Mara Leveritt, the film takes the baffling tack of focusing on the completely wrong people involved in the events. The main characters are the mother of one of the victims (Reese Witherspoon) and a private investigator working the case (Colin Firth). The WM3 are backgrounded, despite the fact that nearly all of this story’s power rests on them. Even worse, the film takes every lazy shortcut imaginable in establishing emotional beats. It features horrendous overacting by Witherspoon and an affectless Firth. It fails to convey the situation in even a passable way. It’s a shockingly bad piece of work.
There’s a surreal moment in Devil’s Knot where Firth’s character actually runs into fictional counterparts to Berlinger and Sinofsky in the process of shooting their documentary. It’s surely meant as a nod of respect to the men, since without them this film would not exist. But instead it’s a painful reminder that this incredible story has been handled so much better in other movies, that you could be watching those movies right at that moment. So do just that and ignore Devil’s Knot.