Devil’s Knot (★★)

devils_knot_ver2Once upon a time, Devil’s Knot was meant to be a rather high profile Oscar contender, and rightfully so. It’s a courtroom drama based on the notorious trial of the West Memphis Three, documented multiple times in the Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries (the last of which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature) as well as the doc West of Memphis. This film has noted filmmaker Atom Egoyan at the helm, A-listers Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon in leading roles, and contains the ingredients to be a player. Sadly though, the mixture is rotten, resulting in a rather pointless flick. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of this case will get absolutely nothing out of the movie, while those coming to it with fresh eyes won’t really understand the importance of it all. Egoyan directs the film like a movie of the week, sucking the life out of it every step of the way, except when he wants to create some melodrama. Firth and Witherspoon have very little to do, and that goes doubly for the big ensemble cast. When a film needs to wrap up a good portion of its story in a text scroll right before the credits, you know something has gone very wrong. Every so often, Devil’s Knot perks up, but for the most part it just sleepwalks for about two hours without leaving any impact whatsoever. Sigh.

In telling a dramatic version of this infamous case, we basically get the cliff notes version of what happened, adding nothing along the way. In short, three young boys wander off into the woods and disappear. One of the boy’s mother Pam Hobbs (Witherspoon) begins to worry, and soon the police are searching. Before long, their bodies are recovered and an investigation into the gruesome murders begins. The police are under intense pressure to wrap this case up quickly, so town pariahs Damien Echols (James Hamrick), Jessie Misskelley, Jr. (Kristopher Higgins), and Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether) are rounded up and charged with the slayings. They listen to heavy metal and are seen as satan worshippers, so quickly a narrative emerges that this was a satanic ritual. With death row seemingly a forgone conclusion for the teens, investigator Ron Lax (Firth) steps in to try and help them mount a credible defense. What starts as an anti death penalty quest becomes an obsessive look at just how bungled the case was. The teens may very well be innocent, but is there any chance of convincing a judge and a jury that’s already made up its mind?

devils-knot-2-e1377167649983Aside from a rough accent at times, Colin Firth is pretty good here, though it’s sort of a standard investigator on an obsessive mission part. Firth doesn’t get to show off his considerable talents too much, but he does elevate an underwritten part. Reese Witherspoon isn’t quite so lucky, as her part is fairly pointless, save for the fact that she needs to eventually reveal that her husband Terry (played by Alessandro Nivola) could be a suspect in the killings. Witherspoon is fine, but she deserved better. The aforementioned Nivola is bland, while the teens James Hamrick, Kristopher Higgins, and Seth Meriwether are solid, if unspectacular. Dane DeHaan is wasted as another boy who might have more to do with the case than some believe, while Bruce Greenwood all but yawns through his part as the judge. Notable cast members on hand include Mireille Enos, Elias Koteas, Stephen Moyer, and Amy Ryan, while the other players here consist of Kevin Durand, Martin Henderson, Collette Wolfe, and more. None of them are bad, but none of them can overcome the weak screenplay either, including Firth and Witherspoon.

You can’t question Atom Egoyan’s intentions here, as they’re very noble, but you can question his execution, which is rather lacking. Egoyan’s direction looks like a mediocre TV movie, while the screenplay from Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson (based on Mara Leveritt‘s book Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three) just can’t add anything to this story besides some unnecessary melodrama. I was dumbfounded when I realized that they literally left all of the twists and turns of the story for the text they put on screen right before the credits. Other filmmakers would have made 90% of the narrative about that, but Egoyan and his writers are seemingly uninterested. If you wind up with the urge to boo when the end credits roll, I’d understand.

Despite obviously pure intentions, everyone involved here is unable to make Devil’s Knot anything nearing a worthwhile film. Aside from some decent performances, there is just missed opportunity after missed opportunity on display here. I knew going in not to expect the awards contender it previously was thought to be, but I didn’t expect such a disposable piece of melodrama. When it comes to this story, watch the aforementioned Paradise Lost trilogy. Devil’s Knot is an easy one to skip…

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