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

Written by Jim Holden.

Photo from the article Devil’s Knot is a failure of a film for numerous reasons:  apart from the lazy, basic structure of the film and choice of central characters; it manages to tell the audience nothing new about the case of the West Memphis Three. Its structure is borderline lazy (that of a standard tv movie, a courtroom drama); no depth is given, and important details are lost or skimmed over. Characters motives are not explored and many background characters are simply stereotyped. It also, because of these previous reasons, urges you to want to watch the documentary West of Memphis again instead, to actually find out the details about the case. This is surely a major fault with a piece of narrative cinema? A film that muddles and botches an infamous, twisty case so much so that to understand motives, reason and, ultimately, the truth, we have to go to a previous piece of work to get the definitive answer. And whilst you can argue that Devil’s Knot is a narrative piece of fiction and only based on true events, what it portrays and shows is a confused snapshot of a fascinating, heart wrenching story. It does not create great drama, rather it distracts from it by having a focus, and Colin Firth’s Ron Lax is a distraction. His divorce may persuade him to get involved with the case, to feel for people, but there is already enough empathy to go around. The central characters never really get to speak, and the case is never fully realised, so we, the audience, never get to know what happened, or, crucially, why. For that Atom Egoyan’s film is a failure.


A lot of what we are watching is already known, so the one thing that could have been expended on was the central characters of the three accused: what they were going through, their motivations, feelings, and even how they felt about Lax stepping in. Time spent, not on Lax and his team, but by looking deeply at the people they are defending would help shape both their case and our interest. Why is Lax defending Jonny Lee Miller exactly? We see very little of him and the accused together. By focusing on him and Witherspoon's Pam Hobbs the filmmakers are choosing to focus on those left behind by the atrocity, and those in the public eye. This could be a bold move, and certainly a different angle to explore, a different side of the story, with new pathos, understanding, drama, but this too is never fully explored. Lax stays a cipher, Witherspoon a stereotype. We understand her uncertainty, and her distrust in what she sees in the courtroom, but apart from her one meeting with Lax we never see how this affects her, and how she copes with this injustice and, ultimately, betrayal. By having Witherspoon cast in the role, it automatically becomes a focus, and in a way, becomes her story, from her viewpoint, but it is a viewpoint that we never get to see. Yes, she, tragically, loses a son, but we never truly see her fight, her hurt and her pain, other than in snapshots of anger. Perhaps, yes, this is not her fault, but that of a loose script, but surely more conversations with her husband needed to be seen by the audience? That way we can see how the case, and indeed he, has affected her family. This is the opposite of Lax. We don’t want or need to see his divorce or his mumbled flirtations at the diner; we want to see his reasons and his findings, his conversations with the accused and the towns people, what he makes of this case and what he will do about it. It seems that the focus is skewed. By focusing on both, as well as the lengthy courtroom proceedings, any depth of these characters motivations are lost.

This confusion and lack of depth which comes from having two contrasting leads neither if whom are central to the drama and from not showing the film's real issue and the one it carefully, in detailed began with; it wants to tell the whole story. It begins with the boys, and gives time and detail on their tragic deaths, and the discovery of the bodies, following the three act narrative structure of the murders, the investigation, and the trial, but by concentrating primarily on act three, the trail, the story is lopsided. Crucially, by focusing on this part, the film has no ending to speak of, as the trail also has no closure, and we are simply given end titles to explain what happened after, something even the documentary tried to avoid too much off. This denouncement betrays what has come before, as, if the film is focusing, now, on the trial of these murders, why not show us more of this trial? the pain it caused, the corruption that went on and more importantly, who it affected. 


The story of the Robin Hood Hills murders and the West Memphis Three is far bigger than Devils Knot, and the film cannot cope with this. Egoyan, on the publicity circuit (in this interview) actually asks the viewers of Devil’s Knot to go further and find out more and about the entire investigation; surely an admission of defeat in realising his film tells us and gives us so very little. Whilst focusing on the initial investigation, we are only getting a snapshot of this story, and a frustrating one at that. Whilst West Memphis Three focuses on the aftermath mainly, and follows the trials and the fate of the accused, it tells a more rounded story. Devils Knot does not. The audience is left with no answers, and no sense of closure. More importantly, none of the motivations, by almost anyone, are explained, and we are simply left screaming ‘Why? Tell us something, give us some detail!’ at the screen. But Egoyan’s failure of a film does not.

This Alternate Take was published on September 17, 2014.

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