If you’ve been paying even the slightest bit of attention you are well familiar with the story of the West Memphis Three. Whether you saw the trilogy of Paradise Lost documentaries, West of Memphis or any number of specials on news programs such as “60 Minutes”, the story of the three Arkansas teenagers convicted of killing three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993 has been well publicized in recent years, primarily due to the shoddy police work and subsequent trial that eventually saw all three boys freed from jail in 2011 after being locked up for 18 years.
Now, in the wake of all the coverage the story has already received, director Atom Egoyan brings us Devil’s Knot, a dramatized interpretation of the story that is nothing more than a Cliff’s Notes version of the events that lead up to the conviction of Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin rather than the 18 years that followed, which are tidily addressed in a postscript just before the credits roll. Half courtroom drama, half melodrama, entirely worthless… this sums up Devil’s Knot in one sentence.
Egoyan, directing from a screenplay by Paul Harris Boardman (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and Scott Derrickson (Sinister) based on Mara Leveritt‘s book, tries to manipulate the narrative by withholding information from the audience that will eventually surface later in the film. I guess for anyone that doesn’t know anything about the case, or frequently gets their entertainment fill on Lifetime movies this would suffice, but the end result is nothing more than a bad episode of “Law & Order”.
Filled with sideways glances and long ponderous moments of reflection followed by a glass of whiskey, Devil’s Knot is a half-assed poser of a movie. It’s almost as if they couldn’t be bothered to tell the entire story or didn’t want to put in the effort.
An opening scene features young Steve Branch running to his mother after school, smiling as if he’s Jonathan Lipnicki in Jerry Maguire, until suddenly he starts singing Elvis’ “That’s All Right” with a big cheesy grin on his face. I can’t remember what he said after that, but he may as well have had his dialogue written on his hand for as authentic as it sounded. Reese Witherspoon, playing the boy’s mother, isn’t much better and a scene midway through where she takes his last piece of homework to his teacher in the middle of the school day may have actually happened, I don’t know, but my god is it a nightmare scene as the teacher actually takes it, grades it, returns it and says, “It’s perfect as always.” “He was really good at math,” Witherspoon responds before the children in the class stand up and walk over to hug her. It’s one of the phoniest scenes I’ve seen in some time and the entire film reeks of a similar lack of authenticity.
Colin Firth is wasted in a thankless role, running around saying the obvious, serving as little more than an expository addition to the story and the rest of the cast is hardly any more valuable. Kevin Durand is the only character that seemed to find a place in the story, playing one of the grieving fathers, but mostly the entire cast comes off as caricatures.
Considering the amount of information available to give this story a proper adaptation, the fact they chose to focus on the most uninteresting aspect of the story is astonishing. Why is it necessary to cut to a scene where Witherspoon mopes around her house or wakes with a start, imagining she sees her son wandering around her backyard? To think they found a way to actually pad the running time with fluff and still decided to gloss over the facts of the far more interesting, final 18 years of the story is just careless and ignorant.