What happened in West Memphis, Ark. in May of 1993 was tragic and horrific. The case that followed afterward showed that the investigation was handled quickly and poorly. And while there have already been four documentaries on the West Memphis Three, including “Paradise Lost,” director Atom Egoyan’s “Devil’s Knot,” which releases to select theaters and VOD on May 9, marks the first time the story has been dramatized.
For those who know nothing about the case, three boys were found dead, mutilated, and tied by their own shoelaces in a swamp. Three teenagers were believed to have committed the crime as part of a satanic ritual. The trial was rushed, and the three were found guilty. But an investigation into the case shows that there was a mistrial, and there’s more to it than what was presented to the jury.
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., all of whom are portrayed by unknowns in the film, appealed their case and are now free. But their guilty conviction still hangs over them, even though they have tried their hardest convincing everyone that they had no involvement in the murders.
“Devil’s Knot” tells the case from the viewpoints of Pam Hobbs (portrayed by Reese Witherspoon) and Ron Lax (portrayed by Colin Firth). Pam is the mother of Steve Branch, one of the murdered boys, and Ron is the investigator working with the lawyers on the case.
You can be completely unaware of this case, or you can know everything that has been presented in the past 21 years. Either way, “Devil’s Knot” comes across as a stilted and cliched courtroom drama that lacks any real suspense. And with so much interesting material out there, it’s a shame that Egoyan couldn’t find a way to keep and hold the audience’s attention in this 115-minute feature.
With so many characters in the film, a lot of them get underused. Even Witherspoon’s Pam Hobbs isn’t explored that much, outside of the opening scene and one moment where she argues with her husband. And it’s really off-putting to watch her character walk around the house and listen to “Wade in the Water” just minutes before the murder of her son. God definitely troubled the water in this case.
Firth, a terrific actor by all means, lacks the greatness he brought to films like “The King’s Speech” and “A Single Man.” Outside of the case, he’s mostly sitting in a diner, talking to the cute waitress, and trying to get his divorce settled. This subplot is almost too much of a diversion from the story.
And it’s really painful to hear Firth describe how he’s working on the case, after it is shown on the diner’s television. The waitress responds with: “Nobody, but you, will help those poor boys.” That line feels like it was ripped from a comic book, which “Devil’s Knot” is not.
“Devil’s Knot” has an A-list cast, but they seem to be stuck in a C-list film. The production values don’t feel real, and the film gets rushed – much like how the real case went, when it came to convicting the three teens. Egoyan doesn’t cram an opinion down the viewer’s throat, and there are a few moments that stand out. But when all is said and done, this feels like one gigantic missed opportunity.