Published Jan 23, 2014Revisiting the sense of anger, loss and confusion in a small-town after a tragedy involving the deaths of children, Atom Egoyan is on familiar ground. Those hoping his telling of the West Memphis Three murders would be a return to form for the director of The Sweet Hereafter though, will be left wanting.
It's not that Devil's Knot is poorly made — the filmmaking is perfectly proficient — it's a matter of the story feeling inessential and incomplete. This is due to the powerful and disturbing documentary released late last year (West of Memphis) and the unsolved nature of the case in question.
Zeroing in on the "satanic panic" that allowed an entire community and local judiciary system to ignore a complete lack of hard evidence and myriad inconsistencies in the tenuous case built against the town's resident teen goth and a couple of his hapless associates is a smart angle, framing the fevered, bloodthirsty vengeance demanded by the townsfolk as almost a kind of mass hallucination.
To tell this appalling and infuriating true story, Egoyan alternates between the perspectives of the mother (Reese Witherspoon) of one of the three young boys found bound and dead in a river, and a private investigator (Colin Firth) staunchly against the death penalty who took it upon himself to aid the defence of the three accused teens.
For the most part, the movie unfolds as a plainly constructed, deadly serious procedural drama, following Firth as he poses obvious questions the local authorities had no interest in asking, content as they were to have someone to blame for the unthinkable atrocity of child murder.
But a few times, especially at the beginning of the film, Egoyan brings his powers of emotional manipulation to bear on a situation that absolutely does not require saccharine manoeuvring to provoke a response. Before his fate befalls him, little Stevie Hobbs is depicted as an angelic cherub of perfection, doting on his mother and excitedly talking about his ambition to be the next Elvis. Maybe this is meant to convey how his mum holds him in her memory, but the approach is very heavy-handed and doesn't fit with the pragmatic inquisition driving the film.
By sheer virtue of how flabbergasting this series of events is, the film is consistently compelling, systematically addressing all the major discrepancies in the case. Because an incident involving the documentary crew is integral to the greater story of what might have happened, an important, specifically weird occurrence is included in this fictionalization; it also serves as a nod of camaraderie to the other platforms this story has been told from.
On the acting front, the majority of the cast do their duty professionally, conveying character believably without resorting to undue histrionics. The standout performance belongs to consummate character actor Kevin Durand. Despite his distinctive stature, he's nearly unrecognizable as the white trash, fire and brimstone father of one of the murdered boys.
Since it's a story of unfathomable injustice that needs to be shared, and knowing that far more people will see a narrative film than a documentary, Egoyan's decision to make Devil's Knot is understandable. It's just a shame that, as an unsolved mystery and a movie without any thematic resolution, the ending is abrupt and unsatisfying, resorting to the kind of information found on a Wikipedia page in place of any sort of thematic conclusion of its own.