"I'm very frustrated by the film's reception," Atom Egoyan told Salon. He's referring to his newly released film "Devil's Knot," a narrative about the so-called West Memphis Three about to be released in the U.S. after filming in the summer of 2012. "People are comparing it to the documentaries and asking why we need it."
The case of the West Memphis Three, has, indeed, been well-covered by documentary directors, most notably in the three "Paradise Lost" films, looking at the allegations of murder against three teenagers in West Memphis, Arkansas. The West Memphis Three were imprisoned despite what can be termed, at best, inconclusive evidence. But Egoyan believes his film does something different: "The issues this film raises are fundamental to what justice means. I'm deeply frustrated! It's about how the film works for people who have never seen [the documentaries]. Journalists forget people haven't seen the documentaries and don't need the documentaries. It's their own fatigue with this material.
"But for people who don't know the case, it's a powerful experience. And it's a huge risk dramatically, using a huge number of genres to tell the story -- murder mystery, courtroom drama, procedural... It's all over the map."
Egoyan, twice nominated for Oscars for his film "The Sweet Hereafter" and lately known for the 2009 erotic thriller "Chloe," has diagnosed accurately the difficult spot he's in. His film places familiar stars (Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon) in a situation that cannot possibly be resolved, frustrating expectations. And the film's buzz has been muted thanks in part to the film taking on a subject familiar to critics, given the amount of nonfiction film that's attempted to explain what, exactly, happened in the West Memphis Three case. "On one level, it’s puzzling as to why anyone thought this movie needed to be made," Variety's critic wrote after the film screened at the Toronto Film Festival last year.
"What’s onscreen in “Devil’s Knot” almost always feels like a poor substitute for what was there in real life."
Egoyan, speaking to Salon, often raised his voice as he explained his mission. "The documentaries are brilliant, but they also present a very specific agenda, and were designed to point attention to other possible explanations," said Egoyan. "I don't think it's that simple. Twenty years after the case, there have been a plethora of avenues explored. But we're structuring the story so that we see the full extent of the aberration of the justice system." It's not about what might have happened, it's about what the three men railroaded by the courts experienced."
Jason Baldwin, one of the three men imprisoned from 1994 until 2010 -- when he, like his two counterparts, filed an "Alford plea" which allowed him to be freed without exonerating him -- told Salon, "The documentaries were amazing. I credit them with saving my life and helping us solve who committed this crime and inspiring people to use whatever tools they're blessed with." But he noted that this film, on whose script he consulted for accuracy, might move the conversation beyond the West Memphis Three to the murders and who might have committed them. "The film is not centered around us -- this case is about the murders and finding out who did this." (For his part, Baldwin's not actively involved in that detective work: "I'm not an investigator. I went to prison as a 16 year old who was about to start sacking groceries for Kroger and then I became a slave in Arkansas state prisons.") He imputed to everyone on the set a motive not just of making a compelling tale but of actually bringing about justice. "They genuinely care. They care about the people involved, and they want to make things right."
"This film will let whoever committed this crime know that we're not giving up," Baldwin said. As for whether or not it will find an audience, icy reviews -- largely matching Variety's tone -- and general confusion over the film's raison d'etre may limit just how widely that message spreads. "I don't think documentaries are designed to focus on characters in a way that looks at the trauma they're undergoing, and what it means to not have resolution," said Egoyan. "Documentaries create resolution by saying 'If only we'd focused on this person...' But we understand we're not any closer to real resolution -- the killer is still out there." It's a message that Egoyan and Baldwin read differently, with the artist expressing a nihilistic lack of dramatic satisfaction and the subject seeing a perpetual chance for justice. But viewers may just find it superfluous.