Nothing here deserves to be characterized as morbid. Indeed, quite the opposite.
"Devil's Knot" is in an impossible bind. I'd wager that almost no one seeing this movie will be ignorant of its real-life inspiration: the 1993 murders and mutilations of three little boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, and the hysteria-tinged court case that led to the conviction and subsequent release of three local teens for murder. Given the harrowing subject matter, it's hard to imagine viewers seeking out "Devil's Knot" without knowing a bit about the case. They may have seen Amy Berg's 2012 documentary "West of Memphis" or one or more of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's "Paradise Lost" documentaries, which are as gripping and mournful as "In Cold Blood," "The Executioner's Song" and other classic true crime books. And they will be disappointed by "Devil's Knot."
The film is a respectful, intelligent real-life drama about the effect of ghastly crimes on a community, and the role that hysteria, social stereotyping and religious bigotry played in it. (The three teens convicted of the crimes were targeted partly because they were pipsqueak rebels, defining themselves against their Bible-belt town by listening to heavy metal and worshiping Satan.) But it's not penetrating or insightful enough to erase or even compete with memories of the real-life participants as they appeared in news stories and documentary features. Truth might not be stranger than fiction, but it's surely messier, and often more surprising. The best nonfiction filmmaking (and traditional written journalism) makes characters in a real-life narrative come alive as individuals; the works do double-duty as stories and portrait galleries. This scripted film has few such virtues. It covers familiar ground in a haphazard way. There are too many major characters and too many points of emphasis. As elegantly directed as it sometimes is, it feels disjointed, scattered. In trying to touch on every important aspect of one chunk of the story (the timeline ends in 1994) "Devil's Knot" treats everything glancingly. It's a grab-bag of vivid, affecting moments that don't add up. I'm tempted to say it should have been a miniseries, but that would make the nagging sense of redundancy more piercing.
Don't fault the actors. They do solid work in roles that often seem like awkward fits. Reese Witherspoon brings a brittle anger to the role of Pam Hobbs, mom of one of the victims, Steve Branch. Alessandro Nivola is an ominously good match as Pam’s controlling husband, who is suggested (and not just in this version) as an alternate suspect. "You're supposed to be a grieving mother," he warns Pam, "start acting like one." That he frames his warning in terms of a performance says a lot.
The fish-out-of-water award goes to Colin Firth as Ron Lax, a private investigator from Memphis who donates his services to the suspects' defense and uncovers many suspicious and ultimately damning facts. Firth's Appalachian accent is solid, and he plays Lax as a city guy trying not to condescend to rural folks; if you're used to seeing him play roles in his own accent (or something close) he takes some getting used to, but he brings a somewhat hesitant dignity that's fascinating in this context.
The young actors playing suspects Damien Echols (James Hamrick), Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether) and Jessie Misskelley Jr. (Kris Higgins) are all subtle, committed actors, but here again it's difficult to watch them without wishing you were watching the people their characters are based on. This sensation is especially acute in Echols' case. In the Berlinger and Sinofsky documentaries especially, Echols came off as one of the most maddening and ultimately fascinating characters in modern crime reportage. The West Memphis three's case dragged on for 18 years, ending in their 2011 release under what's known as an Alford Plea; this arrangement lets the state save face by releasing criminals whose convictions were problematic, but without admitting they imprisoned the wrong people. In the preceding years you saw Echols' personality evolve, beginning in youthful arrogance, ignorance and adolescent playacting, then maturing (and hardening) into angry bitterness before finally ending in devastated wisdom, every last trace of snotty defiance crushed out of him by life. If broader, deeper portraits of Echols and other key participants weren't so readily available, we could be satisfied with the off-putting slivers of characterization offered in "Devil's Knot." But they are, so we can't. For a devotee of this particular story, watching this feature is akin to having spent years immersed in the daily life of a foreign land, then experiencing it the next time during an afternoon layover in that country's busiest airport.
The film's director, Atom Egoyan, is a great cinematic poet of despair and dissatisfaction. His early films "Speaking Parts," "The Adjuster" and "Exotica" were intellectualized but curiously pulpy looks at groups of people whose only shared trait was soul-deep dissatisfaction. He later extended this talent into tales of war, terror and atrocity, including "Adoration," "Felicia's Journey," "Ararat" and his acclaimed movie version of Russell Banks' novel "The Sweet Hereafter," a sort of collective psychic autopsy of a community following a school bus crash. "Devil's Knot" strives for the mix of empathy and despair that Egoyan perfected in the latter film, but it's undone by a desire to be everywhere at once. Only the movie's precise visuals and sound design—every composition and camera movement reflecting the feelings of the characters or the interest of the story, and the crickets and frogs trilling constantly in the background—keeps it from feeling like a TV movie. There are images strong enough to break the torpor—the image of a detective lifting a naked boy's corpse from swamp water is one you'll wish you could un-see—but they aren't enough.
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