Studio: Image Entertainment
Director: Atom Egoyan
Writer: Paul Harris Boardman, Scott Derrickson, Mara Leveritt
Producer: Paul Harris Boardman, Elizabeth Fowler, Clark Peterson, Richard Saperstein
Stars: Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Mireille Enos, Elias Koteas, Stephen Moyer, Amy Ryan, Bruce Greenwood, James Hamrick, Dane DeHaan, Kevin Durand, Alessandro Nivola
A private investigator and a grieving mother try to make sense of a police investigation and a trial after three young boys are mysteriously murdered.
Declaring that “Devil’s Knot” is unnecessary simply because four well-regarded and critically acclaimed films already cover the “West Memphis 3” story in depth is unfair. Timing, a unique idea, and an original presentation can go a long way in avoiding redundancy and in justifying a fresh perspective on any story or concept. The trouble for “Devil’s Knot” is that it waffles in its convictions about the purpose it wishes to serve and what exactly it wants to say.
Given filmdom’s track record with true crime adaptations, a “based on actual events” premise is a virtual guarantee that certain “truths” will be embellished, distorted, or completely fabricated. Whether it is fictionalizing a love interest to add a romantic subplot or inventing a conflict to pep up the action, desire for commercial appeal can necessitate fudging some facts.
Yet with truth being stranger than fiction, the unbelievable reality of the WM3 saga already possesses every dramatic component possible, which renders any Hollywood filter over the affair as largely superfluous. And that does validate the question of why there should be any need to dramatize a true story that has enough inherent intrigue to power four separate documentaries.
The horrifying murders of three eight-year-old boys are made more sensational when whispers of witchcraft and human sacrifice whip West Memphis, Arkansas into a satanic panic. Possibly manipulative and possibly misunderstood, darkly brooding teenager Damien Echols becomes the police’s top target. Simple-minded Jesse Misskelley confuses himself into a possibly coerced confession that lights the frenzied fuse. On the periphery lurk a suspiciously silent stepfather, a bible-preacher bearing a bloody knife and a personality more than a little “off,” lawmen and lawyers with questionable ethics, and assorted friends and family grieving for three young lives tragically cut short.
With a nearly endless roster of compelling characters in the case against the WM3, “Devil’s Knot” confusingly chooses quite possibly the least interesting figure to be its chief focus. Ron Lax is introduced via a silly scene of the presumably wealthy private investigator bidding $21,000 on a Napoleon III marble-topped mahogany writing table. Presumably, the intention is to juxtapose his lifestyle against that of the rural Arkansas community the dwells in trailer parks and works waitressing jobs, although it is just one of many thematic threads that remain loose ends never woven fully into the film.
It is ludicrous that the script even asks the audience to care about Lax’s consternation over divorce papers, as if the gravity of his crumbling marriage can in some way compete with the heartbreak of three boys in their graves and three more in prison. Much time is devoted to Lax’s characterization to create a connection that manifests only as a distraction from the genuinely fascinating aspects of the story. And that comes with the consequence of more important personalities being rushed into caricature as a result.
While John Mark Byers’ real-life behavior certainly qualified as odd, “Devil’s Knot” takes quirk and turns it into cartoon. Damien is portrayed as a defiant punk, while Jason Baldwin is barely portrayed at all. “Devil’s Knot” deliberately avoids showing sympathy to anyone one way or another, but that unbiased intent to paint the broadest strokes possible only raises more doubts about the film’s storytelling purpose.
Is the movie about Ron Lax? If not, why include scenes of auction house accolades and coffee conversation with his ex-wife? Is the movie about the whodunit? Why else would the bloody Bojangles man and vague suspect Christopher Morgan feature in key scenes? Is the movie about the prime suspects? If so, why do they have so little comparative screentime, with key timeline events omitted or condensed? Jesse Misskelley’s confession, for example, is not specifically depicted as coerced, only inferred with a line of text identifying his interrogation length as 12 hours.
One of the end credit texts mentions that John Mark Byers’ wife was found dead in the family home two years after the trial from a cause of death ruled to be “undetermined.” What is the point of this reference, if not to deflect suspicion onto Byers? Fine, but what purpose does it serve to motivate this notion after the movie has already concluded?
The upside to the film’s refusal to pick a side is that it remains mostly respectful to the case, to the people personally involved, and to the memories of the victims. Opening scenes evoke true tension with haunting imagery of shoelace-tied corpses pulled from a shallow creek bed, and the efforts of an emotionally destroyed town to reconcile themselves with incomprehensible madness.
Then “Devil’s Knot” sucks the wind out of its own atmosphere by injecting scenes more typical of a made-for-cable TV movie. Stevie Branch’s classmates joining a group hug for Mrs. Hobbs in one-by-one fashion is needlessly sappy. Ron Lax visiting the crime scene alone at night to ponder pensively in suit and tie establishes nothing other than solitary meditation. The movie makes such an effort to inoffensively mix true story and traditional film formula that it cannot help but end up anemic.
“Devil’s Knot” never splashes its toes in any one aside long enough to wet itself with purpose, as if afraid to commit itself to a particular point of view. Which leaves a courtroom drama as the only discernible nucleus of the film, and that is far from enough to keep the movie engaging when anyone with a passing interest in the case has a vague idea of how it turned out. Serving only as a fractured recap of bullet point details regarding the West Memphis Three, “Devil’s Knot” offers little to move the discussion forward or lay it to rest.
Review Score: 50