“Devil’s Knot” – actually not [MOVIE REVIEW]
“Devil’s Knot” is a misguided attempt to tell the story of the West Memphis Three, something that was told infinitely better in the brilliant documentary “West of Memphis” by Amy Berg. That her name should even be mentioned in the same paragraph with that of Atom Egoyan, the director of “Devil’s Knot” is an injustice at the very least. One, Amy Berg, is on the ascent with so much promise based on the documentary she put together with her accomplished team; the other, Egoyan, continues his descent into portentious, pretentious stolid fare. Before detailing the faults of a film that is not even worthy of two hours on the Lifetime channel, let it be said that anyone remotely interested in this tale should find a copy of Berg’s superb documentary and forget the trek to the movie theater.
“Devil’s Knot” should have had the ear-markings of a must-see. The true story is a nail-biter with heroes and villains and an indictment of anyone who ever made a preliminary judgment based on appearance. Briefly, three young boys go missing in the town of West Memphis, Arkansas. Their nude bodies are found days later in a creek. In a frenzy of mob grief and vengeance, the murders are declared the handiwork of Satanists and they look no further than three teenage misfits rumored to practice those arts. Although their lawyers mount a case that should have raised more than enough reasonable doubt, no one, certainly not the sheriff’s department or the prosecutors, look for any other suspects or have appropriate post-mortems performed. Helping the prosecution’s case is a judge bound and determined to railroad these town misfits.
Egoyan assembled a roster of stellar talent, not the least of whom are Colin Firth as a skeptical private investigator who becomes convinced that the teenagers didn’t do it and Reese Witherspoon as the mother of one of the murdered boys. Rounding out the cast of well-known actors is Alessandro Nivolo, Stephen Moyer, Amy Ryan, Dane DeHaan, Bruce Greenwood and Mireille Enos. Obviously more was spent on hiring recognizable actors than in producing a script that communicates the fear, pathos, vengeance, conflict and tension that were fundamental elements of this miscarriage of justice. No one comes out unscathed. Colin Firth walks around looking concerned; Reese Witherspoon furrows her brow; Alessandro Nivolo tries to look like he’s hiding something; Bruce Greenwood gets to be a one note villain as the judge who continually denies the objections of the defense; and Mireille Enos, well I’m not sure what she was trying to do but whatever it was, it was the director’s fault.
“Devil’s Knot” is a classic case where “Film By” credit deservedly belongs to Egoyan for any hope or interest that this film might have generated was demolished by him and him alone. Based on the book written by Mara Leveritt, this film is rife with “coulda” “woulda” “shoulda” and Egoyan had only to analyze how Amy Berg set up the true life conflicts and stakes. Like many “based on a true story” docudramas, it is possible that he ran into difficulties because most of the participants are still living. Dependent on life-rights approvals, there is little doubt that the stepfather of Steven Branch, Terry Hobbs (played by Alessandro Nivolo) would have given permission for him to be portrayed as the now-leading suspect in the murder of the children. Pamela Hobbs (played by Reese Witherspoon) surely wanted it clear that she always had doubts about the State’s case against the teenagers, hence the constantly furrowed brow.
The drama in this story lies not just in the determination to convict three innocent young men based on little or no circumstantial evidence but in the work it took after their conviction to try to uncover the truth. A chyron at the end of the film about the release of the young men after serving decades in prison or that the investigation is ongoing adds little or nothing to a film that spent all its currency on a kangaroo court trial. Instead the film takes a national tragedy and turns it into a slow slog through the Great Dismal Swamp.
That this film should have been terrific and a terrifying indictment of mob rule and a flawed justice system goes without saying. It wasn’t. Save the drive and do yourself a favor and watch Amy Berg’s outstanding documentary, “West of Memphis.” That would be time well spent.
Opening Friday May 9 at the AMC Burbank 16