My first reaction to “Devil’s Knot”, a narrative film based on the West Memphis , Arkansas crime and punishment saga, was why bother. Already given peerless documentary treatment by Joe Berlinger in the HBO “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” trilogy, anything else would seem superfluous including, I should add, the 2012 “West of Memphis” documentary directed by Amy Berg that I passed by for this very reason.
For a good part of the film, I had the impression that I was watching something from the Lifetime Cable Network that offers “problem” movies about dysfunctional families and the like targeted mostly to women. It was only after remembering that the film was directed by Atom Eyogan, an Armenian-American who is always interesting even when he misfires, I stuck with it. As the film progressed, I saw more and more of the touches that make an Eyogan film memorable. He has a way of putting his personal stamp on any subject he tackles, including the genocide of his people.
For those who are unaccountably unfamiliar with the case, it was basically a modern version of the Salem witch-hunt. When three eight-year-old boys were found dead in a secluded stream, the police arrested three teenagers who were supposedly offering up the bodies to Satan in a ritual sacrifice. The conviction was based on one of the accused’s Goth-style clothing, love of heavy metal and dabbling in witchcraft just like any other alienated teen, as well the coerced confession of another who was developmentally impaired.
The first inkling of Eyogan’s characteristic off-kilter sensibility was a scene in which the mother of one of the dead boys was being interviewed on TV wearing her son’s Cub Scout neckerchief tied around her head. When asked by the interviewer why she was doing it, she giggled and said that it was her way of commemorating her son. Watching from a distance, her husband approached her later and told her that they were supposed to be in mourning and to stop acting like it was a game. Eyogan’s goal was to clearly show the interaction between husbands and wives who had suffered the tragedy, something that was obviously impossible for the documentary filmmakers who did not have such access. Sometimes fiction becomes necessary.
Reese Witherspoon played the bandanna-wearing mother, a kind of role she has been accustomed to, namely a plainspoken Southern woman. (She played June Carter, Mrs. Johnnie Cash, in “Walk the Line”). But in a complete surprise, actor Colin Firth, known mostly for his portraits of the educated gentry including the stuttering King George in “The King’s Speech”, was superb as a Ron Lax, a private investigator for the defense attorneys. In one of the film’s key scenes, Lax tries to get the truth from Damien Echols (James Hamrick) in his jail cell. While clearly repelled by the youth’s Goth pretensions, he saw him as a victim of a mob mentality.
Eyogan has been making films since 1977, when he was 17 years old. He came up as an old-school director, developing his chops on TV shows such as “The Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” rather than the NYU film school/Sundance Festival route. I count his 1994 “Exotica” as an indie classic (not available from Netflix or Amazon; if you get a chance to see it, don’t miss it.) While by no means a perfect film, it is a good introduction to the work of a very talented director and the West Memphis case if you haven’t seen the documentaries.
“The Devil’s Knot” opens on Friday, May 9th, at the AMC 25 Theater in New York.
Also opening on Friday, May 9th, at the Film Forum in New York is “Llyn Foulkes One Man Band”, the greatest documentary I have ever seen about an artist. Granted, I have only seen a handful before this one but it would be difficult for me to imagine something more engaging. Since Ninety percent of a documentary’s appeal is the subject matter, I would naturally be drawn to a subject described in the press in the following terms:
During the seven years chronicled in the film, artist and musician Llyn Foulkes uses hammers and saws to create, destroy, and recreate a pair of large-scale, three-dimensional paintings, one that costs him his marriage, while trying to keep afloat in the fickle art market. With interviews from veterans of the 1960s Los Angeles art scene such as Dennis Hopper and George Herms, the film reconstructs Foulkes’s uncompromising, up-and-down career as he was kicked out of the legendary Ferus Gallery and walked away from a successful career as an L.A. pop artist. Structured like one of Foulkes’s constantly reworked paintings, the film tracks his artistic struggles, ending as he is at last rediscovered by the international art world at age 77. With music written and performed by Foulkes on a massive, fanciful, self-invented musical instrument he calls “The Machine,” Llyn Foulkes One Man Band is an intimate portrait of an artist battling his own demons as well as the perceived demons of the art world.
I don’t often crib press releases but this sums up the film perfectly.
The film consists almost entirely of Foulkes discussing his work and his ongoing struggle against the superficiality and commercialism of the art world. In the 1960s, he became highly marketable because of his rock landscapes (one seen below) that were his trademark works just like Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup cans. After a couple of years, he gave them up precisely for the reason that he did not want to be Andy Warhol.
Eventually Foulkes became famous (or infamous) for working on a painting for over a decade, something that expressed his deepest yearnings to aspire to the heavens but that made making a decent living almost impossible.
In trying to explain why he keeps reworking a canvas, he says that it is like life itself. You are never satisfied with your relationships or your achievement as a human being. That same struggle is expressed in making fine art.
The one man band of the title refers to Llyn Foulkes’s “Machine”, an instrument that might remind you of Red Grooms’s witty paintings. When Foulkes’s art career was in the doldrums, his Spike Jones performances at the machine were remarkable enough to get him a guest spot on the Johnny Carson Show. Foulkes is a terrific songwriter and performer. If you like Tom Waits and Leon Redbone, you will love Llyn Foulkes.
My highest recommendation for this wonderful film, one that had me laughing or smiling in its entirety.