The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Devil's Knot

Reviewed by Jim Holden.

Director Atom Egoyan
Length 114 mins
Certificate 15
Rating ****------
Filmmaking: 2  Personal enjoyment: 2

Photo from the article The new film from Atom Egoyan - something that certainly in the past was a cause for celebration - is based on the infamous case of the West Memphis Three; well known to audiences through the documentaries Paradise Lost (a three part HBO series) and the Peter Jackson produced, West of Memphis. Egoyan’s film, itself based on a book, is another take on the notorious case. That, in itself, that is not an issue; the more people who are aware of this incredible case and disgraceful injustice the better, however those who know even a little about this story will find nothing new, and very little of interest, here.

West Memphis, Arkansas, May 1993, and three young boys go missing whilst playing after school. Worried mother (Reese Witherspoon) and her partner (Alessandro Nivolo) start the hunt, and reluctantly, finally, the police get involved. The next day three bodies are discovered, mutilated, in a creek. Three teenagers are accused, however Ron Lax, a private investigator, believes them to be innocent.

Atom Egoyan, a fine film maker, whose best dramas drip with revelations, tension and unease, should bring great depth and pathos to this reverting story, however he never gets under the surface, or gives us anything fresh. There is no great drama here, simply a series of horrible events and people asking “why?”. Unlikable characters never get room to breathe, and Firth never gets to shine. There is a lot that is left unsaid here, which for a film that becomes a courtroom drama is hugely frustrating. The characters (including, crucially, the accused and the bereaved) are ciphers, almost cliché, and the time spent with the three boys who are on trial is depressingly short. Colin Firth does a standard job in a straight role, although time is wasted on his personal life (he is in the midst of a divorce) when we should be seeing his relationships with the local community, especially Witherspoon, who he only briefly, if crucially, meets. Indeed, there are too many characters jostling for screen time in a film that feels rather cut. A particularly messy portion of the film occurs after the crime is discovered, where countless people give their story, briefly. Most wasteful is the use of Dane DeHaan, a character who is given little to do, other than look pissed off.

The film as a whole feels like a rushed affair, and perhaps a more sober, talky version was cut. It certainly feels like things are rushed, or skimmed over. This includes the leads, whilst Witherspoon is solid as a grieving mother, we never get to discover her thought process or opinion; and as Lax, Firth never shows us his desire to get involved, and quite what he thinks. The support too, are wasted, with great character actors (Elias Koteas, Amy Ryan etc.) bringing nothing to the table in tiny, distracting roles.

Although certain things are implied here, details and events are far too often left open or unsaid. For a more focused, detailed account, the documentaries do a far better job of telling this incredible story.

This review was published on July 11, 2014.

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