Back in 1993, three boys wandered into the woods of a small Arkansas town and never came out again, their bodies were found hog-tied and dumped in the river, apparent victims to a satanic murder. Quickly, but with little actual evidence, the crimes were pinned on three teens aptly labelled ‘The West Memphis Three’. The media circus that erupted around this small-town murder escalated into a witch hunt which called for the boys to be charged and punished as quickly as possible. Suitable doubt has been raised in recent years as to the validity of the prosecution and a frankly unsettling question as to who the real murderers are. The case has been the subject of numerous documentaries and novels, Atom Egoyan’s feature is in fact based on one such novel of the same title by Mara Leveritt and partly adapted by Scott Derrickson (Sinister) and Paul Harris Boardman (The Exorcism of Emily Rose).
The story itself is compelling in the most disturbing way, so the film has a great base to work from; a haunting tale of savage murder and hysteria shrouded in a dense mystery wrapped in incompetence and small-town politics. Egoyan has a keen eye for tone and mood, setting both with a masterful control over colour, image, and creeping camera movements. But under its pretty thriller façade, there’s not a huge amount to bolster this as anything more than a visual representation of a well-written book.
Reece Witherspoon stars as one of the murdered boys mothers and spends all of her time sobbing and looking panicked, whilst Colin Firth is perhaps a little more grabbing as the inquisitive George Lux, but not much more. There’s a superb supporting cast here, but not enough solid story to work from. Sure the courtroom sequences are great in their totally maddening lack of reason; the hysteria of a community demanding blood over-takes the true desire for justice. And there are a few scenes that are truly distressing, but again that’s down to the subject matter and rarely the way it’s relayed, bar a grim and cruel first twenty minutes that are deeply upsetting. The strongest element of Egoyan’s feature is its ability to present a mystery without spoon-feeding, thus allowing the audience to do a bit of the work and realise just how shoddily the case was handled.
Devil’s Knot is grim and torturous, dark and cynical. It skips the happy ending, start and middle, instead grappling with concrete mystery. At its heart it’s a court drama thriller, but the story surpasses the execution rendering this a dubious venture. If you’ve read the book or seen one of the documentaries, there’s little need to watch the film.
Dir. Atom Egoyan
Stars. Colin Firth, Reece Witherspoon, Alessandro Nivola, James Hamrick, Bruce Greenwood, Stephen Moyer, Dane DeHaan