The Devil’s Knot is a film with a lot of actors acting in it. It’s not something we’d ordinarily mention first up in a review, save for the fact that here, you simply can’t help but notice it. Some of the acting is really rather good, but, after a horrific, impactful opening 20 minutes, you’re never left in any doubt that this is a dramatic take on a thoroughly nasty real life collection of events.
For the film dramatises the West Memphis Three story – so hauntingly dealt with in the likes of Paradise Lost and West Of Memphis – which saw three boys brutally murdered, and the clamour for justice overtaken by a clamour for legal retribution.
Director Atom Egoyan makes no attempt to obscure which side of the story he sits on, and it’s certainly an issue with The Devil’s Knot that a seemingly one sided legal process is documented in a film that’s also single-tracked in its beliefs from a very early stage. Egoyan, adapting Mara Levitt’s book, frequently interrupts his film with captions to enforce the ludicrous excuse for legal process that’s happening. Yet because he’s so one sided, it means his portrayal of the investigation doesn’t feel entirely authentic. It’s a shallow telling of a deathly serious story.
Still, The Devil’s Knot does have its moments. Egoyan doesn’t let his camera flinch in key moments, and the screenplay – from Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson – does scratch at the religious issues that underpin the investigation. There’s a hugely talented cast here too, led by Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, and at the very least, the film presents enough to feel justifiable outrage at what actually happened.
And yet, we find out too little about Firth’s character to properly invest in him, and Witherspoon performance as Pam Hobbs – the mother of one of the three murdered boys – is technically fine, but still feels like Witherspoon acting a part, rather than fleshing out her role. It’s a haunting film, but that’s more down to the fact that the story behind it is so raw and powerful, as opposed to this depiction of it adding anything substantive to either awareness or debate about it.
Vilified in some quarters on its US release, The Devil’s Knot certainly has problems. But it doesn’t, ultimately, have anything new to add, in spite of having clear intentions. There’s nothing to distinguish it as a film, and the story it draws attention to has been covered more ably elsewhere. As an introductory piece? The Devil’s Knot is okay. But its ambitions are surprisingly low.
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