Director: Atom Egoyan
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Film Pulse Score: 3.5/10
Devil’s Knot is not the first nor will it be the last dramatization of a heinous crime and the subsequent criminal trial that followed it. There are many elements in that actual case that could make for a great film so when it was announced that the case of the West Memphis Three was going to be made into a feature film it didn’t sound like a bad idea. Add in the fact that it was to be directed by Atom Egoyan, director of the masterful The Sweet Hereafter, and to star Academy Award winners Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon on paper it seemed like a winner. However, the end result leaves a number of questions. How did it turn out as bad as it did and worst of all what is the point of it even existing?
On May 5th, 1993, three eight-year old boys from West Memphis, Arkansas were reported missing. The following day the bodies of the three boys are discovered and a manhunt begins to find the person or persons responsible for this heinous crime. As the investigation and the pressure to make a conviction continued, suspicion and ultimately guilt was laid upon three teenagers who were arrested for the crime. It’s a crime they say they did not commit but now their fate rests in the hands of the jury.
Devil’s Knot has the misfortune of arriving well after other filmmakers have already made what is very likely the definitive historical record of this case and its miscarriage of justice. The Paradise Lost Trilogy, directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, and West of Memphis, directed by Amy Berg, are an engrossing, thought provoking and powerful series of documentaries that follow the case from its beginning to the bitter-sweet ending that occurred but a few years ago in 2011. This film is based upon the book “Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three” written by Mara Leveritt. Having not read the book it’s hard to say if the source material actual adds anything new or enlightening to what the documentaries already covered. So what more does this film have to offer? Very little.
The book was adapted for the screen by Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman whose previous credits include Sinister, Hellraiser:Inferno and Urban Legends: Final Cut. Yup, one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice was in turn dealt a miscarriage itself when second-tier horror film writers were tasked with such a weighty subject matter. The film is barely passable as a Cliff Notes version of the case. The film focuses primarily on the events that would have occurred in the first part of the Paradise Lost Trilogy. Events go by so fast and key moments that should have been lingered upon are simply brushed over. For anyone who has never even heard of the case will find the proceedings quite muddled. You never seem to feel the weight or get the significance of many scenes. In addition, you never know who you are supposed to be focusing upon. Whose story is this anyway? If it’s supposed to be about the West Memphis Three why are we spending so much time with peripheral characters? The film is more about Pam Hobbs, mother of one of the victims, and Ron Lax, a private investigator helping the defense attorneys. As is their story is not at all engaging nor is it empathetic. They have taken the essence of the people portrayed and turned them into mere caricatures.
Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon are excellent actors. They have deservedly won Oscars for their work. However, here they really aren’t given much to do that it feels like they are simply going through the motions and not providing any real dimensionality to their characters. It’s as though they are only performing the characters as written and haven’t many any attempt to give them life. Many of the actors are made to look like their real-life counterpart but they are simply mimicking them case in point Kevin Durand as John Mark Byers. In real life, a larger than life character you noticed. Here nothing but someone yapping in the background. Bruce Greenwood appears as Judge Burnett and you don’t even get the sense that this man is intoxicated on his own power.
Just look at Atom Egoyan’s repertoire and you know he is a solid director and writer. It’s rather surprising that he allowed the film to exist as it was. For example, there’s a moment that is meant to be poignant but comes off so laughable and irritatingly heavy-handed and cheesy that it felt like this was a second-rate TV movie. You’d expect better. This film is unfocused as it jumps from character to character and event to event. It fails to establish a sense of time as it feels like days when actually it’s been months. Sure there are title cards that tell you what time it is but that will be quickly forgotten by the time the next one comes up.
This film should have been written by more seasoned screenwriters who have a sense of story and how to capture the horror and intrigue the mind. In other hands this probably could have worked but this is not that film and they probably shouldn’t even bother trying. At 114 minutes this is about half-an-hour shorter than the first Paradise film. If you’ve never followed the case you would be doing yourself a favor by watching that instead as reality provides far more drama, tension, anger and thought. After watching it you’ll be intrigued to watch the other films. After watching Devil’s Knot you’ll probably shrug your shoulders and forget about it, which is unfortunate.