Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Aton Egoyan

Stars: Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Elias Koteas, Alessandro Nivola, Dane DeHaan, James Hamrick, Seth Meriwether, Kris Higgins, Rex Linn, Bruce Greenwood, Amy Ryan, Robert Baker, Stephen Moyer, Martin Henderson, Kevin Durand, Mireille Enos.

In 1993, three young boys were brutally murdered in the town of West Memphis, Arkansas. In the deeply religious town in America’s south, superstition ran strong, and it was suspected that the murder involved satanic rituals, witchcraft and the occult. Because three local teenagers – Damien Echols, 16-year-old Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley – were outsiders and loners heavily into heavy metal music, dark clothes and had a passing interest in the occult, they immediately became suspects.

The story of the so-called West Memphis three – three teenagers who were convicted of the sexual assault and murder of the young boys on largely circumstantial and spurious evidence – has been well explored in four previous documentaries. Joe Berlinger investigated the circumstances of the complex case and pointed out the glaring oversights in the official investigation and the miscarriage of justice in his epic Paradise Lost trilogy. And more recently documentary filmmaker Amy Berg also explored troubling aspects of the case and identified other potential suspects in her film West Of Memphis.

But despite all of this attention, the case has never been satisfactorily resolved and it is obvious that the three teens were railroaded. It is now widely accepted that the three are innocent. There still remain plenty of unanswered questions about the crime though. The real killer, or killers, have never been identified and the motive for the shocking crime is still unknown.

However, this true story is rife with tragedy and anguish, injustice and small town guilt, and is fascinating stuff, perfect territory for filmmakers. Unfortunately, this rather pedestrian dramatisation from respected Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter, etc) merely covers similar territory and offers little that is fresh or startling.

In Devil’s Knot, a lightly fictionalised treatment of the case based on Mara Leveritt’s novel, private investigator Ronald Lax (Colin Firth) is hired by the defence lawyers to investigate further. But Lax seems to conduct only a superficial investigation as he spends most of his time in his office reviewing evidence with his colleagues or watching the court case unfold. He is convinced of the innocence of the three teenagers, which makes him unpopular with most of the townsfolk. There are hints of police intimidation to try and stop his investigation, but this is never really explored or developed.

This is a fairly dull courtroom drama, and there is none of the tension or dramatic fireworks one would expect from a dramatisation of such a controversial and volatile court case. Also characterisation is somewhat slim and it is hard for audiences to empathise with many of the characters here. Part of the problem lies in the prosaic screenplay from Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson (who also wrote the spooky Deliver Us From Evil which features Eric Bana as a ghost busting New York cop). It seems as though they lack the courage of their convictions and fail to follow through on criticising the ineffective police investigation, or address speculation about the identity of the true killers. But Egoyan’s direction is also fairly flat, and the film is fairly bland visually. The only time the film really grabs the audience is during the discovery of the bodies, and these scenes are quite chilling and moving.

Reese Withespoon and Firth deserved better than the underwritten roles they are lumbered with here. Witherspoon has stacked on the weight and deglamourised herself to play Pamela Hobbs, the mother of one of the victims, struggling to make ends meets and still numbed by her loss. It is not a particularly demanding role for Witherspoon, although she brings some genuine emotion to her performance as a grieving mother who wants closure. And Firth has a rather passive presence here as Lax, who was only a minor player in the real life events anyway, and delivers a fairly one note and colourless performance. And he struggles to maintain a convincing Southern accent.

Egoyan has assembled a strong cast to play the peripheral characters, but most of them are wasted on underdeveloped characters. The cast includes Egoyan regulars like Elias Koteas, Bruce Greenwood as a judge who seems biased towards the prosecution, while rising star Dane DeHaan is a crucial witness whose testimony lacks credibility, and Alessandro Nivola plays Terry Hobbs. James Hamrick (from HBO series The Newsroom) plays Echols, Seth Meriwether (from Trouble With The Curve, etc) plays Baldwin, and Kris Higgins (from The Secret Life Of The American Teenager, etc) plays Misskelley, whose supposed confession was the lynchpin of the prosecution’s case.

But ultimately, Devil’s Knot is a mishandled opportunity and one feels as if the material needed a stronger director, one who is better able to tap into the darker depths of this crime that rocked small town America and still continues to disturb today. If Egoyan wanted to refocus attention on this miscarriage of justice he has failed miserably. The end result is a muddled and bland drama that adds little to the familiar story. Those interested in the case would do well to track down the documentaries which contain far more detail and insight.




  1. Really did not like this, Atom Egoyan just didn’t have his heart in it and the script was a fail.

Speak Your Mind