Whilst today’s Britons may not be as well informed as Americans on the ‘West Memphis Three’ someone still had to give a go of turning the 1990’s trial of the three claimed child-murderers into a film. It’s a delicate thing turning a series of real-life horrific events into a piece of entertainment for cinemagoers.
Glamorize it too much and the filmmaker betrays the actual sufferers’ story; divert too much and they risk selling one product to the audience but offering another. Unfortunately, the balance needed to create honest filmmaking with an affective (and uncompromising) narrative was too out-of-grasp for Devil’s Knot director, Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter; Chloe).
The ‘West Memphis Three’ is the notorious name given to the trio of Arkansas teenagers who are alleged to have murdered three local eight-year old boys in ways resembling that of a satanic ritual. Devil’s Knot follows the story of Pamela Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), one of the victims’ mothers as she deals with the ordeal of the trio’s trial. Sidelining is Ron Lax (Colin Firth), a private investigator seeking the truth about the tragedy and those detained as culprits.
On the face of it, Devil’s Knot appears to be a competent thriller. The film’s trailer touts a tension-filled plot that sees a whole town emotionally wrought following the events of the boys’ disappearances and the eventual twisting tribunal.
However, once underway, everything from clumsy tonal shifts to an overly melodramatic score unhinges what is clearly an intriguing film on a deep level. One moment Egoyan is offering us a grounded drama before he spins around and throws a reel of a faux documentary at us and then rinsing and repeating.
The intercut documentary-eque segments would likely gel well if there wasn’t something cardinally wrong with most of the film’s characters both on the page and the screen. Reese Witherspoon pours her soul into the role of the broken mother and hooks us with her affective portrayal, but she interacts with daytime soap dialogue or acting from others. Then we cut to Kevin Durand as what appears to be the character spokesman for the town who (God bless him) offers up a goofy Redneck presence that could rival The Simpsons’ Cletus.
The film is a venn diagram of exceptional and terrible story, character and acting which chooses to change in waves instead of remaining consistent. Dane DeHaan and Amy Ryan, two of the film’s finest actors, feel sorely underused especially when Colin Firth’s lacklustre performance is factored in. Usually Firth’s presence alone would add great majesty to a film but here, with his cockananny accent and uncharismatic involvement in the story’s events, he offers nothing in the way of character levity.
It might also be unfair to point out but the most striking reason that Devil’s Knot just doesn’t cut it is that it’s hard to watch a film about satanic cult murder in rural America without comparing it now to HBO’s True Detective, a television series which dealt with the subject in such a magnificent way that failures in films like Devil’s Knot are only highlighted even more than they might otherwise have been.
Ultimately, it’s hard to not feel like the film is disingenuous to the events and people it is based on, with its bizarre characters and uneven style. Whilst there are a few heartbreaking moments and some occasionally great character performances, Devil’s Knot simply feels a little too flimsy to be regarded as a good recommendation for anyone in need of a cult-murder thriller film to snuggle up to.
Devil’s Knot is out on DVD on October 6th
Steven J. Bowron