Four highly publicized documentaries in, it should go without saying that the West Memphis Three ordeal has taken up its fair share of screentime. The necessity for a narrative feature is a questionable one, and despite the potential promise of Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot, the film ultimately stands as a prime example why the story shouldn’t be adapted into a narrative feature – at least not a narrative feature this lazy and uninteresting as this one. Even with a cast that includes Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth, Kevin Durand, Dane DeHaan, Bruce Greenwood, Amy Ryan, and Mireille Enos, Egoyan has delivered one of the worst big screen takes on a true story of this magnitude in quite some time, an eye-popping failure of both execution and emotion. Egoyan fails to engage with not only his audience but also the actual material he’s attempting to portray on screen, making Devil’s Knot one of the year’s most disappointing misfires.
Centered on the early years of the West Memphis Three ordeal, Egoyan’s film opens on the afternoon of May 5, 1993, introducing us to both Pam Hobbs (Witherspoon) and her son, the charming Stevie. After Stevie fails to come home from an afternoon play session with his best pals Michael Moore and Christopher Byers, the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas is turned upside and inside out as desperate parents and friends search for the eight-year-olds. The deceased boys are soon found in a nearby creek, and the condition of their bodies (hog-tied, mutilated, and clad in mussed up clothing) immediately make it clear to a town in the grips of “satanic panic” that someone truly evil is in their midst. A notoriously botched investigation eventually leads the cops to three teens – Damien Echols (James Hamrick), Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether), and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. (Kristopher Higgins) – who are swiftly pinned to the crime. Weakly attempting to show multiple perspectives, Egoyan’s film spends the majority of time with both the mourning mother Pam Hobbes and a local private investigator (Firth as the real-life Ron Lax) who is desperate to clear the names of the three young men, or at least save them from the death penalty.
It’s charged stuff, but Devil’s Knot is so empty of passion, drive, or flow, that even a story as horrific as this one never reaches any kind of dramatic level. The film lacks both focus and clarity, as Egoyan bounces between Pam, Lax, and the investigation without getting emotionally involved with any of them. Choosing to set the film during the earliest part of the story already telegraphs a supreme disinterest in delving into the more complicated and compelling parts of this horrific tale, but at the very least Egoyan should have been able to wrest some emotion from shell-shocked parents and the horrified suspects.
The only attempt at giving the film any sort of worldview or opinion on the story centers on Mychael Danna’s almost laughably overbearing score – with the music tensing up every time Alessandro Nivola (as Terry Hobbs, stepfather to Stevie Branch, and long a source of interest in the case) appears on screen (look at this guy! He may be evil! At least the uncomfortable tones are trying to tell you that!). It’s shockingly pedestrian and leading, but at least it signals that Egoyan may have some semblance of opinion on the story he’s chosen to script for the big screen, even if that opinion never amounts to much.
If Devil’s Knot is an attempt to dramatize the events of the case independent of the documentaries that have come before (and it stands to reason that’s Egoyan’s intention), the director has failed at that quite spectacularly. Not only is the Paradise Lost team mentioned throughout the film, Lax even speaks to a member of their crew to get information about a suspect. Stylistically speaking, Egoyan employs the use of documentary-style in-screen text to not only introduce characters and to pass along dates, but also to literally spell out information that’s already plainly obvious (no, we don’t need a line of text informing us that an audio tape of a witness’ interview is being played during a trial, when the audio tape of the witness’ interview is then played during the trial).
The big name cast (there are Oscar winners in here, for chrissakes) is given little to do, with Firth failing to leave a mark and Witherspoon granted just one or two scenes in which to flex her chops. Nivola, a talented character actor who is typically capable of more, seems stuck inside a bad Sam Rockwell impersonation here (seriously, was Sam Rockwell not available for this role?). The only member of the stacked cast that manage stand out in a positive manner is Dane DeHaan, and even he is trapped in an extremely limited role.
Lensed without energy or creativity, the one cinematographic choice that does make – a frequent use of full body shots of the dead boys (nude, bloody, and hog-tied) – goes from unsettling into offensive, simply because it’s presented with such little skill and respect. Devil’s Knot is so void of finesse – technical or emotional – that it frequently feels like a Lifetime movie that just so happened to snag a recognizable cast. A complete misfire on nearly every level.
The Upside: Dane DeHaan does a lot with very little, a slim number of breathtaking shots in the film’s first act stand out.
The Downside: A wholly pedestrian, uninspired, slack, and directionless dramatization of a captivating and emotionally rich true-life tale made all the worse by its wasted cast and increasingly poor storytelling decisions.
On the Side: The film was lensed not in Arkansas, but Georgia.