Review: Devil’s Knot (2014)

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Director: Atom Egoyan
Screenwriters: Paul Harris Boardman & Scott Derrickson
Based on a true story
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth, Mireille Enos, Dane DeHaan, Elias Koteas, Stephen Moyer, Kevin Durand & Bruce Greenwood
Runtime: 114 min // Certificate: 15

One of the main criticisms levelled at Devil’s Knot since its release stateside has been that it treads over old ground without offering anything new. Based on a rather harrowing true story, the film acts as docudrama (with emphasis on the drama, not the “docu”) that attempts to pick apart the infinitely complex details of a case about which I, until today, knew next to nothing.

Perhaps it’s due to a lack of foreknowledge on my part but, whilst it’s obvious that Egoyan’s (Chloe) film has a clear agenda and is simply re-telling a story with actors, rather than actual people, I actually found Devil’s Knot to be pretty engrossing. For those who don’t know, the film – based on true crime book of the same name Mara Leveritt – explores the case of the West Memphis Three; three teenagers who, on the back of flimsy, circumstantial evidence, were, tried, convicted and sentenced to either imprisonment or death for the brutal murder of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The case is infamous for the manner in which the prosecution attempted to blame associations with Satanism, the occult and heavy metal music for the teenagers’ crimes, as well as the flagrant incompetence of the officers investigating the case.

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Now, if you take it as a straight drama with no real-life baggage – which, I admit, is far easier when you have no knowledge of or prior investment in the facts – Devil’s Knot does a successful job of telling a harrowing story without feeling too obtuse or, worse still, platitudinous. It gets off to a shaky start and some of the themes of injustice, mob hysteria and paranoia feel a tad clumsy, but when taken as a whole, Egoyan’s film comes together rather well. Despite a rather blunt approach to the issues (irrespective of how disgraceful this whole affair was, a little nuance now and then wouldn’t have gone amiss…), the film manages to frustrate and enrage in equal measure, whilst also forcing you to question who, if anyone, you would’ve believed had you been there.

A large part of this is down to the performances. Firth (A Single Man) and Witherspoon (Walk the Line) are both fantastic (though neither of them is given a true moment to shine, which is a shame) while DeHaan (Chronicle) is, as always, perfect, though he too doesn’t get anywhere near enough screen time. Greenwood’s (Star Trek) judge is loathsome, while relative newcomers James Hamrick (The Newsroom), Kristopher Higgins (In Time) and Seth Meriwether (Trouble with the Curve) all slip into their roles as the “West Memphis Three” with ease. Sure, the script doesn’t always give these guys much opportunity to show what they’re made of, but they all do a pretty solid job.

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That’s not to say the film doesn’t come without problems, because it most certainly does. Irrespective of factual accuracy, there are times when the drama is ladled on in such an obtuse manner – with soft music, still shots of people crying, and Colin Firth getting very angry indeed – that is can be off-putting. These moments don’t overwhelm the rest of the film, and most of them are confined to the first act, when the film still seems to be finding its footing, but they do drain some of the tension and innate emotional turmoil out of the story, which is unfortunate. Similarly, the attempts to insert small elements of documentary-style filming don’t really work. The annotation of names, dates and events, for example, rather than granting the film a semblance of authenticity, actually just feels tacky.

If you have prior knowledge of the story, Egoyan’s film might feel a bit trite, but if his intention was to tell this tragic story to a new audience then he does a fine – though unremarkable – job of demonstrating just how shambolic the quest for justice can be, particularly when it’s dictated by the mob in small town America. The film does feel a bit limp at times, no doubt about it, but by the end I was both captivated and infuriated. I’m sure the more I delve into this case (by which I’m now fascinated, admittedly), the more I’ll grow to dislike Devil’s Knot as there’ll clearly be a mountain of things it misses out, ignores or twists but for now, albeit with only Wikipedia to help me pick through the details, I think it’s a decent effort.