A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
"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.
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