Based on one of America’s most publicised recent murder trials, and the fall-out thereof, Devi’s Knot tells the true story of the West Memphis Three. A story of this magnitude, having already been made into countless TV specials and documentary West Of Memphis in 2012, certainly holds enough intrigue and injustice to create a gripping film but does Devil’s Knot tie you up in mystery or does it unravel under the scrutiny of such a politically hot topic.
In 1993 West Memphis three young boys, Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore, all go missing. A few days later their bodies are found in a local creek. With the local community demanding justice the police quickly set about finding the killers. What they find are three teenagers Damian Echols (James Hamrick) Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether) and Jessie Misskelley (Kristopher Higgins), all with a history of dabbling in the occult, and enough spurious evidence to connect them to the murders. But local investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth) is less than convinced by the evidence on offer while Stevie Branch’s grieving mother Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon) becomes increasingly concerned as the trial goes to court and the evidence against the teenagers looks flimsy at best.
With a subject matter this well know, an all-star cast and a director more than capable of spinning an engaging yarn, especially about communities in distress, in the form of Atom Egoyan Devil’s Knot is nothing if rife with potential. And the early signs are that we could be in for a dark and gritty little thriller of atmosphere and horror as the murders are first discovered and then the evidence begins to mount. The first act allows Egoyan to adopt Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River aesthetic as his camera slowly glides around the woods where the bodies were found and creating a sense of doom lurking beneath the muddy waters and emerald-green canopy.
Alas before long Devil’s Knot has run out of steam. Instead of telling a dark little story the script rapidly descends into recreating the events rather than focusing on a protagonist and their arc as the case unfolded. As such the film feels like a halfway house between a narrative and a re-creation of the facts as offered in the defense of the three teenagers.
The film flirts with having Firth’s Lax as the investigator digging the dirt on all the subterfuge the police offer up but he never feels fully involved in the case, rather a spectator like us, always looking in from the outside impotent to enforce real action in the trial of the trio. It all feels too obvious; in the bible-bashing South these boys’ interest in devil-worship is an easy scapegoat.
What is more frustrating is the sense that there are still interesting beats to this story had it focused on the right players. By sticking too closely to the facts of the case Egoyan is prohibited from fleshing out an engaging story. The film is screaming out for a bit of John Grisham like thrills, be them Lax unraveling the case or even better; telling the story from the teenagers’ point of view and the fear and injustice they face as they stand trial for something they did not do.
The performances are all fine if a little underwhelming. And that’s the key here, there’s no character who really hooks you in but rather vessels that gradually allow exposition of the trial to filter through. The one exception to this is a fleeting appearance from Dane DeHaan as a key suspect who was never properly considered a suspect. His cold eyes and ambiguous smile is a potentially interesting plot but never fleshed out beyond speculation.
Early atmosphere soon dulls as Devil’s Knot becomes frayed and tangled in its insistence to tell too accurate a tale. What a film like this called for was a dramatic rather than factual influence, alas it goes missing somewhere beneath the muddy waters of that creek.