Based on the previously well-documented true story of the West Memphis Three, Canadian director Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot (2013) attempts to dramatise Mara Leveritt’s novelisation of the same name. The result is a melodramatic, calculable and subsequently dull procedural that makes you baffled by its inertness. When three boys are found brutally murdered in an area ominously known as the “Devil’s Den”, locals – including one of the boys’ mother’s Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon) – are left paralysed. Three teenagers, Damien (James Hamrick), Jessie (Kristopher Higgins) and Jason (Seth Meriwether), are soon charged as accused members of this sinister satanic cult.
However, as the separate trials unfold, it becomes clear that the evidence is insubstantial and that the convicts may have been used as scapegoats for the authorities’ own ignorance. The true story is undeniably a fascinating one, full of tragedy, anguish and scandalous injustice, yet Egoyan has stripped Devil’s Knot clean of all that and fashioned a run-of-the-mill TV movie in its place. Severely lacking in depth and characterisation (almost no back story is awarded to either of the three suspects), the film unfolds systematically, covering all the well-versed facts without offering up anything of note. It’s as if screenwriters Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman are erring too much on the side of caution, so as not to limit its scope. Egoyan’s laissez-faire directorial approach hardly helps matters.
The whole film is captured in such a bland and washed-out manner that even when the narrative pricks up even momentarily (Pam’s emotional pain, in particular, is depicted well) the momentum isn’t raised whatsoever. The performances, too, no matter how hard various actors try otherwise, are disappointingly nondescript. Colin Firth, who plays a pro bono private investigator working for the defence, does nothing more than rattle off various technical terms in an admirable, yet failed attempt at a Southern accent. For a film that’s as drab and uninvolving as Devil’s Knot is to be based on such a horrific event in American history as the West Memphis Three, is astounding. In that it wastes the talents of a wide net of extremely talented actors (Witherspoon and Firth only scratch the surface of a cast that includes Dane DeHaan and Mireille Enos) and limits the extent of the particular case – one that is still open to this day – is enough to render it needless, particularly when there’s several other films already on the market.