REVIEW: Devil’s Knot

4 06 2014

DVL00056INTH_DEVIL'S-KNOT.inddThe miscarriage of justice in the case of the West Memphis Three, a group of Satanist wrongfully convicted of murdering young children in rural Arkansas, has received plenty of attention from non-fiction filmmakers.  Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have created the “Paradise Lost” trilogy about their case; the final film netted them an Oscar nomination.  And if that wasn’t enough, Academy Award nominee Amy Berg made her own documentary on the subject, “West of Memphis,” to great acclaim.

Now I love a good documentary, and judging from the occasional surprise mainstream crossover hit like “Blackfish,” most audiences aren’t opposed to them either.  Yet there’s only a limited audience that those films can reach, sadly, due to some inherent bias people seem to possess against non-fiction filmmaking.  If you take a look at the list of highest-grossing documentaries, no one is reaching wide audiences unless they are Michael Moore, a pop star, or a cute animal.

I don’t doubt the good intentions behind the filmmaking team of “Devil’s Knot,” a narrativized account of the events in the case.  If you tell the story as a legal thriller with Oscar winners like Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, it has the potential to reach an entirely different crowd of people that would never stop to watch a true-life procedural.

It’s a real shame, then, that Atom Egoyan’s film fails to connect on just about every level.  His feckless direction leaves “Devil’s Knot” not a tonal mess but downright confusing.  Reducing a subject that has received nearly seven hours of coverage from the “Paradise Lost” films alone into a two hour feature is a lofty task, and Egoyan never figures out an effective method of intelligibly conveying the facts and events.  (Not to mention, there are still enough questions lingering in the case to fill another film.)

Devil's Knot still

“Devil’s Knot” alternates between being frustratingly vague and insultingly heavy-handed.  I am smart enough to figure out who is testifying in court without a caption at the bottom of the screen telling me that it is happening, thank you.  These explanatory words might have been useful in or between other scenes of the film when the developments of the case get a little hazier.

The bigger problem, though, is the slapdash script.  I am shocked, quite frankly, that something with so many rudimentary errors in storytelling made it to production.  That dismay is only compounded by the fact that “Devil’s Knot” is a film under the tutelage of an Oscar nominated director.

It’s hard for me to even decide what the biggest flaw of the script is.  It chooses to focus on a rather bizarre timeframe in the case, from the time of the murders to the initial convictions of the West Memphis Three.  Given what we now know about their innocence, seeing only this first phase of events leaves “Devil’s Knot” feeling rather incomplete, especially when they tease out its resolution with a few title cards before the credits roll.

Moreover, the screenwriters can’t even figure out who the protagonist of the film is.  They vacillate between following a tragically miscast Colin Firth as a Southern attorney who magically sees the truth of the case and an on-point Reese Witherspoon as a grieving mother of one of the victims.  Each has their compelling moments, to be sure, but sporadically alternating focus between the two of them does justice to neither of them.

Celebrities have long flocked to advocacy for the West Memphis Three; Peter Jackson event went to the extent of producing Berg’s documentary on them.  Perhaps all the talent in the film, from Firth and Witherspoon down to Bruce Greenwood, Amy Ryan, Alessandro Nivola, Stephen Moyer, Kevin Durand, Elias Koteas, Dane DeHaan, and Mireille Enos, would have been better off contributing their energy in a similar fashion.  No one gives a bad performance in the film (though Firth’s accent could use some work), but they are all stifled by the listless indirection of “Devil’s Knot” at foundational levels.  D+1star



2 responses

6 06 2014

I forgot about this film completely. I think if it were to come on Instant Netflix or something, I might check it out, I just don’t see what it could offer that Paradise Lost/West of Memphis hasn’t already.

6 06 2014

It is on Netflix Instant, already, believe it or not. They dumped it with a tiny theatrical/VOD release and then quickly shuffled it off to streaming.

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