Watching "Devil's Knot" is a baffling experience, made all the more perplexing because a filmmaker of Atom Egoyan's (2010's "Chloe
") esteem is behind it. For a director who dug so deeply and poetically with a similar motion picture about the investigation into a tragedy, 1997's powerful "The Sweet Hereafter," this dramatization into the case of the so-called West Memphis Three is a jarring, even irresponsible, step down. Adapted from Mara Leveritt's 2002 true crime book with no attempt to update it for 2014 outside of a hasty postscript, the film feels painfully outdated and emotionally inert, a homogenized, wishy-washy soap opera bereft of the infinite layers, unsettling urgency and provocative outrage found within the four major feature-length documentaries made on the subject (that is, 1996's "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills," 2000's "Paradise Lost 2: Revelations" and 2011's "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, and 2012's "West of Memphis" from Amy Berg). Compared to all those films, "Devil's Knot" is a virtual farce, the finished product playing as if it was thrown together by people whose research consisted of skimming over the West Memphis Three's Wikipedia entry.
On the afternoon of May 5, 1993, three 8-year-old best friendsStevie Branch (Jet Jurgensmeyer), Michael Moore (Paul Boardman Jr.) and Christopher Byers (Brandon Spink)go outside to play in their suburban West Memphis, Arkansas neighborhood and never come home. The next day, their lifeless bodies are found nude, hogtied and partially submerged in a nearby creek bed. As the boys' devastated parents, among them Stevie's devoted mother Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), struggle to come to grips with the loss of their children and the atrocious acts done to them, shockwaves reverberate across the community. In a rash drive to find the guilty parties, false rumors spread and a modern-day witch hunt ensues. Based on unreliable testimony from a little boy and a bogus confession from the mentally challenged Jessie Misskelley Jr. (Kristopher Higgins), bullied by law enforcement to place himself and teenage acquaintances Damien Echols (James Hamrick) and Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether) at the scene of the crime, the three young men are soon arrested. Private investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth) suspects right from the start that they are victims of a case of Satanic panicalleged ringleader Damien is a self-labeled Wiccan, listens to heavy metal, and wears black clothingand the more he looks into the flimsy, virtually nonexistent evidence of the case, the more certain he is that the police, the jury, and the entire town at large are about to make a terrible mistake.
"Devil's Knot" is lacking the gritty authenticity that this true storyand the real-life people being portrayedrequires, the sterling (but gravely wasted) cast too recognizable to appear as if they are doing anything but playing dress-up. Reese Witherspoon (2012's "This Means War
"), wearing padding around her mid-section and backside to make her look less like a Hollywood movie star, gives the film's most sincere performance as Pam Hobbs, but is trapped in what too often feels like a Lifetime movie. When Pam goes to her late son's classroom months after his death to get the teacher to grade his homework, it strikes as egregiously false, made all the worse when the young students all stand up and, on cue, give her a group hug. That this scene is set during the following school year and these kids are not the ones who knew her son is a small but undeniable detail that makes it all the more of an eye-roller. As investigator Ron Lax, Colin Firth (2010's "The King's Speech
") arguably has the most screen time and yet is an ineffectual non-starter of a character who stands as an outsider from the rest of the townand the film as a whole.
In "Devil's Knot," the lives of the three accused young men are skimmed over, much like all the other scattershot plot threads and ensemble players. There are some graphic murder scene images, to be sure, but the movie's sheen has otherwise been scrubbed clean. Director Atom Egoyan, working from a screenplay by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson (2005's "The Exorcism of Emily Rose
"), covers the snap judgments, hearsay and hysteria of a town ripped apart by a heinous triple homicide, but does so in a by-the-numbers fashion, never digging beneath the surface. There is no passion in the usually terrific director's workEgoyan's stylistic and thematic fingerprints are nowhere to be founda surprise since so many people who have followed this case have such strong emotional responses to it. Had the film focused on one aspect of this subject matteror, for example, been a character study of Pam Hobbs, who is easily the most interesting character, or Damien Echolsat least this would have solved its uneven synopsized storytelling. Twenty-plus years removed from that fateful day in 1993, the West Memphis Three have been released from prison, having agreed to take the court's ridiculous Alford Plea, while all the DNA evidence now points to the involvement of Pam's then-husband Terry (Alessandro Nivola). Most of this, however, has been left out of the movie proper. "Devil's Knot" is a soft, uninspired tale of injustice that deserved better.