Published on July 17th, 2014 | by Curtis Mayfield
Devil’s Knot – Film Review
Reviewed by Curtis Mayfield M-H on June 30th, 2014
Icon presents a film by Atom Egoyan
Producers: Paul Harris Boardman, Elizabeth Fowler, Clark Peterson, Richard Saperstein and Christopher Woodrow
Written by Paul Harris Boardman & Scott Derrickson
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth, Dane DeHaan, Kevin Durand, Mireille Enos
Music by Mychael Danna
Cinematography: Paul Sarossy
Editing by Susan Shipton
Running Time: 114 minutes
Release Date: July 24th, 2014
In 1993 the town of West Memphis, Arkansas, USA fell victim to a horrifying crime that resulted in the murder of three young boys: Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore. After a search party that consisted of both police and members of the community, the boys were found naked and tied up in a creek. This horrible act made the town demand for the killer’s blood. Three teenaged boys named Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols were arrested for the crime and were prematurely labeled as being guilty by the media and the community. The stigma that they were the murderers came from the teenager’s love of metal music and black clothing. As no solid evidence was produced in the initial stages of the investigation the police quickly spun the motives of the crime to being that of “anti-Christian” beliefs. Devil’s Knot focuses on the aftermath and trial of the crime as well as the doubt felt by some that the accused were actually innocent of any wrongdoing.
The film is based off Mara Leveritt’s book of the same title and chronicles the mishandled murder investigation and trial of the accused. All the names of the people involved have been kept intact in an attempt show true historical accuracy. Reese Witherspoon plays Pam Hobbs, the mother of Stevie. Hobbs was one of the most outspoken voices during this time, talking with the media openly about the pain felt by her, the other parents of the victims and the community. Though Witherspoon’s performance does hold up there are scenes lacking where true heartbreak could have been shown. Most of the time she is seen staring into the distance or exchanging strange glances with Colin Firth’s deadpan character, private investigator Ron Lax.
For some reason Lax is given a back-story which doesn’t really matter to the main plot. The man is a divorced lawyer turned private investigator crusader who has taken interest in the case in order to stop the three teenagers from receiving the death penalty. It’s clear that movies do need a character that an audience can follow and feel empathy for but Ron Lax shouldn’t be that character. The character of Damien Echols (played by James Hamrick) would have been ten times more interesting than Lax if given a bigger role. Even when facing the death penalty Echols kept to his defiant ways, as sneering at the news cameras and flipping the bird was not uncommon for this teenager who was raised on rebellious music. Echols unwillingly played the role of the media scapegoat throughout the trial and was labeled the “leader” in the crime.
As this movie is based off a true story that was never fully concluded, the tale this movie tells was never going to be an easy one to convey. Those who have seen the documentary based on this trial, titled West of Memphis, will understand that there are too many elements for a two hour movie to uncover and explore. Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson’s screenplay had to cover a lot in a short amount of time but instead of a complete vision of this true story we get more questions than answers. These two writers have cut their teeth on making horror movies (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Deliver Us from Evil) so maybe jumping into telling a complex factual story wasn’t the best idea. To Derrickson and Boardman’s credit the darkness and utter horror of the crime is captured brilliantly without gore or anything else too over the top.
Where the previously mentioned documentary does point to a possible culprit, Devil’s Knot gives the audience vague indications of possible offenders and motives. As director Atom Egoyan points out, the actual case was one that was not based off of hard evidence and instead facts were manufactured and hype replaced reality. Firth and Witherspoon have seemed to be dealt a bad hand here as both their characters, though interesting, weren’t fleshed out enough to become anything three dimensional for an audience to accept. Dane DeHaan makes a triumphant cameo as Chris Morgan, a suspect for the murder, but unfortunately as the complex story dictates, does not get much screen time. The same can be said about Canadian actor Kevin Durand who plays John Mark Byers, the stepfather of Chris Byers, who was also a suspect. Some of the acting did let this film down even more with James Hamrick looking and sounding more like a soap opera actor than a person portraying an interesting character such as Echols. Mireille Enos plays a white trash mother quite well but is only on camera for a short part of the film.
Atom Egoyan’s film does manage to tell a lot about this complicated event, which didn’t produce results in real life, but Devil’s Knot still leaves a lot more uncertainty rather than an answer. Though, maybe, that’s what Egoyan was attempting to get across. Besides the three victims and whoever committed this crime, nobody knows exactly what happened. It’s possible that audiences are meant to feel perplexed by the end of the film but that theory is still not enough to call this a great film.
Summary: It’s possible that audiences are meant to feel perplexed by the end of the film but that theory is still not enough to call this a great film.