Devil’s Knot (2014)

20 May

Colin-Firth-in-movie-Devils-Knot-2013

Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I can probably see why filmmaker Atom Egoyan agreed to direct this film. It is a compelling subject matter that he touched upon in one of his earlier films, “The Sweet Hereafter.” That 1997 film was about how a community struggles to come to grips with an unspeakable tragedy while expressing anger and grief. Egoyan probably thought he could make something as strong if he created a fictionalized version of the 1993-1994 “West Memphis Three” trials. But Egoyan is in a no-win situation with this material. A fictional film based on this material would be extremely difficult to pull off, and I’m afraid that Egoyan’s attempt, titled “Devil’s Knot,” is an okay-try but hopelessly redundant.

I can’t think of anyone seeing this movie who won’t know about the West Memphis Three or the child murders at Robin Hood woods in West Memphis, Arkansas. That’s one of the biggest problems with this film. The WM3 trials have been big world news and the subject of a trilogy of documentaries called “Paradise Lost.” Those documentarians went into the courtrooms, caught the trials and testimonies from the defendants and witnesses on camera, and also captured how the town reacted to the murders and to the trials, as well as the possibility the defendants were in fact innocent. They were three teenage boys who dressed in black, listened to heavy metal, and research the Wicca religion, and so the townspeople and the police linked the boys to the grisly murders of three little boys, claiming they performed devil-worshipping sacrificial rituals. They were found guilty and spent 18 years in prison. It was one of the most documented and publicized crime stories in our history, and we all know about it thanks to the news, sponsors representing the three prisoners and demanding their freedom, and the “Paradise Lost” documentaries.

And there was even a documentary released in 2012 (“West of Memphis”) that had the advantage of telling the whole story in hindsight. What we know is that these three kids were punished for crimes they didn’t commit and lost 18 years of their lives in prison. What we don’t know is who killed those three little boys.

Everything we know about the West Memphis Three is in “Devil’s Knot,” which tells a fictionalized version of the original 1993-1994 trials of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Miskelley Jr. There is nothing new to be said here. We’ve seen this all before, we all know how it goes, and there is no new true insight to be found in this pointless film.

The strange thing is, I would have given the film a slight pass if it wanted to tell about how the victims’ families try to go about their day after their little children were taken away from them. Egoyan can capture this well (again, see “Sweet Hereafter” for example), and he does have a few scenes that focus on the mother of one of the murdered boys, Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), and her husband, Terry Hobbs (Alessandro Nivola). But they’re so few and cast aside for scenes involving a private investigator, Ron Lax (Colin Firth), trying to put some pieces together. And just when you think Egoyan and the film’s writers, Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson, are going to try and come up with new insights for these characters, they’re cast aside for everything we’ve seen before. The smartass behavior of Damien Echols. Jessie Miskelley’s recanted confession. The ranting of John Mark Byers (Kevin Durand), the adoptive father of one of the victims. The false witnesses. The dumb police. The modern-day Salem Witch Trials parallels. The tedious police interrogations. Been there, done that. I’m not saying new theories as to who would’ve murdered Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch, and Michael Moore would’ve been necessarily acceptable; I’m just saying that, in my opinion, there is no reason this film should exist since it’s telling us what we already know.

The actors do their best to play familiar characters (er, people). Reese Witherspoon acquits herself nicely as a grieving mother, though her main role is to look on with grief and then concern; the actors playing the three suspects (James Hamrick as Damien, Seth Meriwether as Jason, Kristopher Higgins as Jessie) are just right for the roles; Mirelle Enos is fine as the mother of a little boy who testifies with a possibly false story; and Dane DeHaan does a nice job as Chris Morgan, another possible suspect. But Colin Firth is wasted in the role of the private investigator; he has nothing to work with here, even when the film tries to give him a superfluous back story with an ex-wife living in the town.

The courtroom scenes offer no surprises; elements we’ve heard about are introduced and then dropped, such as a man covered in blood and mud; and again, we’ve been through this before. And then at the end, when the film decides to wrap itself up quickly, it gives us text upon text upon text reminding us what happened since the suspects were found guilty.

Mainly, what it comes down to is no matter how hard any filmmaker could try, a fictional retelling of the West Memphis Three story cannot give us anything more compelling than what we already know. If you want to see a film that goes into great detail and depth about this story, the answer is obvious: watch the documentary “West of Memphis” instead.

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