There are very few instances in this world where the reality of the matter is more interesting than any form of fiction. Such is the case with Canadian director Atom Egoyan’s newest film Devil’s Knot. Gripping, chilling, and in many instances disturbing, the film is a mildly rewarding take on a story that doesn’t need a feature film to highlight anymore high tension than it already has.
Tackling the very daunting task of offering new insight in the on-again/off-again case of the West Memphis murders, Devil’s Knot is a short yet ample “For Dummies” version film about a case that has been exhausted through documentaries (the Paradise Lost documentary film trilogy and West of Memphis) as well as various biographies, books and extensive media coverage.
Egoyan’s film, which is based on the book Devil’s Knot by Mara Leveritt, is really the first high-profile film project (excluding Peter Jackson’s producing credit in West of Memphis) with A-List actors who paint a vivid picture of the people involved in the case, the victims and the “accused”. From Reese Witherspoon to Colin Firth, the film is a by-the-numbers drama with sub-powerful performances that gives off a satisfactory feeling of relief; a relief that suffices only from the time you leave the theatre, to the time you get home and find out more about the case yourself.
The film follows Ron Lax (Firth), a private investigator who decides to take on the West Memphis case pro-bono in what we understand to be the pursuit of a “rightful conviction”. Throughout his investigation, Lax uncovers numerous instances of judicial injustice, inconsistencies in the evidence, and improper police protocol that would have been crucial to solving the case and proving the innocence of the three young accused.
Egoyan is no stranger to dramas centred around the tragedy of the loss of children, or innocence for that matter. It seems as though no one else could have adapted Leveritt’s book as throughly as him, yet Egoyan’s vision is always second-string to the facts and the reality of the case itself. Often times veering in the direction of a ‘made-for-televison film’, or treading the fine line of being a special episode on CSI or Law & Order, the film is a washed out, third party perspective that attempts to be unbiased throughout, but still takes a strong side by the time the credits roll.
Much like the case itself, the film was able to round out a very high-profile group of individuals in front of the camera, especially given the small nature of the film and it’s light $15 million budget. From Mireille Enos, Alessandro Nivola, Amy Ryan, Dane DeHaan, and Matt Letscher, to television stars Stephen Moyer and Martin Henderson, and Egoyan favourites Elias Koteas and Bruce Greenwood, the film is a star-studded festival entry despite it’s surface level insight, cowardly execution and lack of style.
The film succeeds when it trembles the notions of stereotypes and common, misunderstood motifs. Once tragedy struck, the town of West Memphis seemed to be content with the fact that Damien Echols (James Hamrick) and his two friends, Jessie Misskelley Jr. (Kristopher Higgins) and Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether), were accused of murder solely because they listened to heavy metal music and dressed in black. The film shows the ridiculousness of society’s stubborn ability to shed little light on the truth of misunderstood forms of art.
Set within the small town, low income, ‘Bible Belt’ of the United States, the film shows the very colourful contentions between the presence of the “unholy”, as well as how quick people are to vilify anything it doesn’t understand, even if that means sentencing an innocent teenager to death. It is in the scenes where Lax investigates the facts that could potentially lead to these young men’s freedom, that the film flourishes leaps and bounds. From unaccredited sources and not-so-expert witnesses, to completely fabricated testimonies, the film acts as Lax’s own personal assistant, as he navigates a seamlessly normal town which actually might have a few skeletons in it’s closet after all. The film shows just how convenient and perfect the outcasts of society, especially within the small Hillbilly pockets of the United States, really are.
Highlighting the ignorance of small-town Southern US communities, the laughable prediction amidst the accusations of alleged Satanic rituals, and giving a very graphic and unabridged look on how these innocent little boys were recovered from a lake (aptly titled the Devil’s Den), Devil’s Knot would have worked best as an HBO special. Instead it succeeds best as a visual piece of narrative whose greatest testament is allowing it’s audience to indulge in shocking images and discomforting truths. Ironically enough, Devil’s Knot is riveting most when no dialogue is spoken–in the scenes involving the search and discovery of the bodies and the reactions of the victim’s parents, especially Witherspoon’s.
Upon conclusion, and much like the case itself, the film continues to insinuate that within the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas, everybody may be a real suspect in the unwarranted murder of three eight-year old boys. If anything, Devil’s Knot is an appetizer size, introductory piece of narrative cinema that will surely serve as a catalyst for people to look into the complexity and uncertainty of one of America’s most misunderstood and poorly investigated murder cases of all time.
Night Film Reviews: 6/10 Stars.
Is Devil’s Knot a perfect example of the power of the documentary? Does the film inspire you to reach out and gather your own information on the West Memphis case? Or does the film serve as an adequate amount of horror involving children? Has 2013 seen its fair share of tragedy for children with the stellar Prisoners? Let us know what you thought of the film with comments and thoughts below!