Saturday 21 November 2015

Movie Review: Devil's Knot (2013)

A triple murder mystery drama based on real events, Devil's Knot wades into well-worn territory, and offers neither anything new nor any sort of resolution.

In the rural community of West Memphis, Arkansas, three eight-year-old boys go out for a bike ride into a wooded area and never come back. After a mammoth search, the dead and naked bodies of Stevie, Christopher and Michael are found at the bottom of a creek, tied up and seemingly brutally assaulted. Stevie's mother Pamela Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon) is distraught, not helped by her coarse husband Terry (Alessandro Nivola). The national media descends on West Memphis, the local police force is overwhelmed, and rumours start to swirl that the boys were victims of a satanic death cult. Soon, three teenagers are arrested and charged with the murders. The dark and brooding Damien Echols is designated the ring leader, with his friends Jason Baldwin and the borderline retarded Jessie Misskelley as active accomplices.

Christopher's father John Mark Byers (Kevin Durand) regales the media with tirades about satanic forces at play. Meanwhile, private investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth) notices plenty of holes in the case against the three teens, and offers his services to the defence team. The muddled police investigation includes botched questioning, missing evidence, dubious confessions, and improbable witness testimony. The case goes to court with Judge David Burnett (Bruce Greenwood) presiding, and the community witnesses a trial circus that compounds the tragedy of the murders.

The West Memphis murders occurred in May 1993, and in subsequent years, the crime and subsequent trial have been the subject of several in-depth documentaries and books. The arrest and trial of Damien, Jason and Jessie are considered an injustice piled onto to a calamity, and every aspect of the story has been poured over in detail, on film and in print.

It is not clear what director Atom Egoyan thought could be gained from dramatizing the story, using the non-fiction book by Mara Leveritt as source material. The production has undoubted quality and polish, and Egoyan succeeds in recreating a small town consumed by unimaginable events, invaded by the media, and obsessed by fear-based wild stories of satanic rituals. Devil's Knot also takes an unblinking look at a small town police force simply not equipped to deal with a brutal triple murder, and a trial judge who redefines the rules of objectivity.

But none of this is new material, and the film flounders in search of a purpose. It does not offer anything new to the story, and neither does it work as compelling drama. Egoyan adopts a documentary style to chronicle and annotate events on the screen, a puzzling case of a non-documentary positioning itself in bewildering competition with actual documentaries that already delved into the same story.

Colin Firth sleepwalks through the film, an Englishman trying to conjure up a southern accent but unable to latch onto a dramatic lifeline. Amy Ryan as Lax's ex-wife is wasted in a couple of throwaway scenes. Reese Witherspoon does a bit better and gets a few moments to infuse some emotion, but Pamela Hobbs mostly exchanges meaningful glances with Ron Lax across the courtroom, only for all meaning to seep out of the film as it fizzles into an non-conclusion and more documentary-style postscripts.

Devil's Knot suffers from that most insidious of flaws: a film that works its way to irrelevance.

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