Knowing that he would not be able to attend this weekend's premiere of "Devil's Knot" in Little Rock, Colin Firth spoke about his role in the film by phone from his home in London. He said he felt a bit daunted after he'd accepted the offer of his friend, Canadian director Atom Egoyan, to play the part of Ron Lax.
Firth understood that he'd be portraying the Memphis private investigator who volunteered to help the defense teams representing the three accused teens. What he did not grasp at first was how contentious the story remains.
He said, "I suddenly realized I was walking into something with which people were not only acquainted, but had opinions about — and many of these opinions were passionately held. I think people would have been forgiven for looking at me and saying, 'Who are you and why the hell would you get involved?' "
On top of that, Firth said, "The whole case was very strange and very complex." And, like the film's title, "Devil's Knot," the story was "hard to untangle."
Firth also faced the challenge of portraying a man who sees a tragedy unfold without being able to avert it. In that sense, he saw Lax, the veteran investigator, as representing many others who, over the years, have come to see in the West Memphis case tragedy compounded — without knowing how to confront it.
"When a case is so traumatic and feelings are running so high, people are going to be very, very sensitive," he said. "I quickly realized that if I had anything going for me, it was that I could cast a dispassionate eye over everything, which it seemed very few people at the time were able to do."
He likened his situation as an actor to Lax's situation after the teenagers' arrests. "If anything, Ron Lax himself came to the case as an outsider, not with any prejudgment. He was not from West Memphis. He was urban. He was not connected with the police. He didn't know any of the bereaved."
He said, "As an actor — a storyteller — my way into the film was to shadow that. Ron came in as an outsider to investigate something. He got involved for legal reasons. My reasons were different — artistic, if you like.
"Nevertheless, he found himself more and more engaged the more he became acquainted with the story. And that's how it was for me."
But the concerns Lax embodied defy Hollywood conventions. As Firth put it, "He doesn't get his man. He doesn't argue his case before a judge. He doesn't have demonstrable victories. And that troubled me in terms of film craft and storytelling. But Atom was convinced that that was important, almost from a Kafkaesque point of view."
("Kafkaesque," Kafka biographer Frederick R. Karl once said, "is when you find yourself against a force that does not lend itself to the way you perceive the world. You don't give up. You don't lie down and die. What you do is struggle against this with all of your equipment, with whatever you have. But of course you don't stand a chance.")
Firth concluded that what Lax represented was doubt — shrewd and committed but powerless. It could be no other way. "When you play a real person and deal with a story that affects real people," he said, "you try to play that part as honestly as possible." Looking back, he said, "I think there's something very humane and critical in the voice of Ron, because he's trying to keep doubt alive. And personally, I believe that the more you do that —the more you recognize doubt — the better chance you have of showing some truth."
Firth seemed to speak about doubt as useful both in acting and in investigations — or maybe they're similar. "Doubt does not go well with rage and revulsion," he said, "and all the things we're likely to feel when crimes are committed against children. It's very hard to be that distressed and horrified and stay with something as impassive as uncertainty.
"And that applies, not just to West Memphis. It applies continually everywhere. Whereas, if you try to be truthful, that resonates. I would like to feel the film opens up questions that might have closed in people's minds."
The actor mentioned meeting Jason Baldwin, the youngest of the West Memphis Three. "I was struck — incredibly struck," Firth said, "by his gentleness and humanity, his decency, and his apparent lack of bitterness, despite being somebody who's lost that many years in prison. I was amazed that he was able to be as compassionate as he was regarding everyone, evidently without any self-pity."
Firth hoped that viewers would find a similar sense of "decency" in the film. Speaking of the murders, he said, "Of course people want to find who did it. But it's important that we don't allow ourselves to become monstrous in the pursuit of the truth.
"I'm hoping that the film, rather than condemning the protagonists, offers some understanding of how this thing got so confused, so derailed — that it actually allows us to understand how these things can happen.
"It's not just about West Memphis, or Arkansas, or even the United States of America. It's about what happens to all people where feelings and fears are running so high. People have reflexive reactions. We presume. Our prejudices kick into play very quickly.
"Instead of demonizing the people who prosecuted Jason and Damien and Jessie, I think it's just a lot more productive if you can understand things properly. If you can see things from all sides, you actually have a better shot at bringing a case to justice."
He finds no justice in the case as it stands. "If you look at Damien, Jessie and Jason," he said, "they're a walking paradox. They're innocent people convicted of a horrific crime, who are walking free, and that can't please anybody."
Firth said he understood that the Alford plea — the deal by which the men were freed — was an attempt at compromise. "But it can't be right," he said.
"Nobody can look at this situation and think it's sorted out. If you've murdered children, you can't be walking the streets. If you haven't, you shouldn't be convicted murderers. It's a legal and logical absurdity."