Review: Devil's Knot (TIFF 2013)
PLOT: The true story of the arrest and trial of the West Memphis Three, from the perspectives of the mother (Reese Witherspoon) of one of the victims, and the private investigator (Colin Firth) who works for the defence.
REVIEW: Director Atom Egoyan's managed to do the impossible. He's taken one of the most fascinating true crime tales of the last twenty years, and turned it into an utterly dull feature film. Egoyan, who's an extremely celebrated Canadian director, and something of a TIFF legend, has made a film that would seem more at home on the small-screen (although I doubt it would even be good enough for HBO), despite the presence of a top flight cast including two academy award winners in the leads.
This is certainly a major flop for all involved. Damien Echols has been outspoken in his opposition to the film, but he need not have worried about the way he's portrayed. He's almost a bit part in Egoyan's film, with all the focus being saved for the two roles played by movie stars, Witherspoon's Pam Hobbs, and Firth's Ron Lax. Suffice to say, neither of them are at their best here, although both try.
For one thing, Witherspoon is a ridiculously idealized version of Hobbs. Witherspoon put on a few pounds to make her come off a bit frumpier, but she's not terribly convincing, in a role that's really not that fascinating compared to the other players in the case. Meanwhile, Colin Firth tries really hard to disguise his English accent and disappear into the part. He does his best, but hasn't got much to work with, despite getting the lion's share of the screen time, as he delves into the satanic panic that gripped the town following the killings.
Miscast as some of the players may seem, they're not the real problem with DEVIL'S KNOT. This could have been overlooked if the film had been even slightly gripping, but Egoyan's pedestrian direction utterly torpedoes the film, turning it into just another procedural. Anyone who's interested in the case should already know the facts and players pretty well, with the PARADISE LOST trilogy and WEST OF MEMPHIS. Fact is, any of those four documentaries is one hundred times more absorbing and cinematic than DEVIL'S KNOT is.
Another stupefying move was the decision to limit the scope of the film to the first trial. It ends with the initial conviction, and none of the subsequent investigation or fifteen year crusade to have these men freed have any part in this, other than a text recap at the end. What a bizarre decision, especially given the cinematic possibilities of what happened next in the case. Even if Egoyan wanted to limit his focus, that would have been fine if at least he'd done something- anything- interesting with the material. Witnesses and suspects played by well-known actors (including Dane DeHaan, Mireille Enos) come and go. Alessandro Nivola plays Terry Hobbs, whose part in the case is still controversial, and plays it fairly middle of the road. He makes him a bit of a red herring towards the end, but even still, Hobbs, just like everyone else, is never made into a really interesting character.
There probably is a great West Memphis Three movie to be made, but the makers of DEVIL'S KNOT do not seem up to the challenge. This is a footnote that merely regurgitates facts a lot of us already know, and never dramatizes them in a gripping, absorbing way. It's never anything other than dull. If you want to learn about the case, just watch WEST OF MEMPHIS instead.