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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Devil’s Knot movie review: well-worn tracks

Devil's Knot yellow light

Atom Egoyan is all over the real-life case of American injustice surrounding the West Memphis Three. But sadly, I’m not sure why.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’ve been following the real-life story depicted here for many years; love the cast and director

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Atom Egoyan, who is a pretty amazing filmmaker — his The Sweet Hereafter must be one of the saddest, wisest movies ever made — is all over the case of the West Memphis Three… and, sadly, I’m not sure why. The real-life story is already a notorious modern anti-classic of American injustice, thanks to an ongoing online campaign and four documentaries — the Paradise Lost trilogy and the recent West of Memphis — devoted to the plight of the three men who, as teens, were convicted of the supposedly Satanic murders of three little boys in small-town Arkansas in 1993 on little more than the “basis” that “ringleader” Damien Echols wore a lot of black, listened to heavy metal, and knew who Aleister Crowley was. (The three, also including Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, were released from prison in 2011 after an unusual plea deal that did not vacate their convictions.) Even at the time of the 1994 trials, when Paradise Lost documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky began their filmmaking odyssey, there were dramatic indications that the boys were being railroaded in what was almost literally a witchhunt, and, indeed, Egoyan includes a scene in which an unnamed filmmaker turns over key evidence to a defense investigator (Colin Firth: The Railway Man, Gambit), as actually happened.

Egoyan’s semifictionalized narrative of the case is Egoyan-esque in the best way, focusing on the impact of this terrible crime on the ordinary people around it, from the unnamed young male cop who breaks down in tears at the horrific scene where the little bodies are discovered to the grief of the mother of one of the victims (an appropriately de-glammed Reese Witherspoon: This Means War, Water for Elephants). And merely to name the cast sounds like you’re projecting a cinematic spell: in addition to Firth and Witherspoon, you will find Dane DeHaan (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), Mireille Enos (Sabotage), Elias Koteas (Now You See Me), Amy Ryan (Escape Plan), Alessandro Nivola (American Hustle), and Bruce Greenwood (Endless Love) here. But most of their roles are minimal, because Devil’s Knot sprawls out all over too many issues: of small-town policing in which relatively benign run-ins with the law can become “evidence” of evil, of religious and cultural frenzy over “Satanism” that swept the U.S. in the 80s and 90s, of troubled kids in disadvantaged environments, of the inequities involved when the death penalty is invoked, and that’s not even all. This is a crime that remains officially unsolved, but it has been explored extensively on film already. And handsome as his film may be, Egoyan brings nothing new to the table. The best that can be said about Devil’s Knot is that the involvement of a few big-name movie stars might bring this important story to a new audience.

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If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • jaws_fan

    biased, not biast

  • Danielm80

    Apparently you’re being too subtle, MaryAnn. It looks like you need to post a note that says: The word “biast” is spelled wrong ON PURPOSE. That’s why it’s in quotation marks. If you’d like to know more, follow this link:


    And even then, people still won’t get it.

  • Oh noes! Really? You mean I’ve been spelling it wrong all this time? *faints*

  • RogerBW

    Time for some senior law enforcement type to make a statement. “There has never, since records began, been one single solid case of satanic ritual abuse. Every conviction, everywhere, has been overturned. There is no evidence that it has ever happened. We will no longer take such claims any more seriously than claims of witchcraft.”

  • That point *is* basically made in this film by the Colin Firth character. But logic and fact had nothing to do with the convictions of the three teens. Evidence was lost, leads were ignored. I don’t think the Satanic “tactic” would work today, but people at the time were out for blood and they didn’t care if they got the actual killer(s).

  • RogerBW

    There are still periodic attempts to whip this sort of thing up in the US and even in the UK. Some cops are smart enough to check the history of this sort of thing. Some, particularly if they’re already paying through the nose for “expert consultants on satanic abuse”, aren’t.

  • David

    There’s nothing to get. Biast is the correct spelling. Your braindead if you don’t know that.

  • David

    I don’t oppose the death penalty on philosophical grounds. I think that there are certain crimes that are so heinous that the death penalty is morally acceptable: torture murders, mass murders, rape-murders, and child murders. That being said, I don’t trust the government in general or the legal system much. I am fully aware that anybody reading this including myself could find ourselves at the receiving end of a series of unfortunate coincidences and, through no fault of our own, find ourselves convicted of a crime. That’s one of the reasons I liked My Cousin Vinny so much is because it showed how even with the police, prosecutor, and judge all behaving professionally and ethically, two young men almost faced execution. Throw corruption into the mix and there are serious dangers with the legal system having the power to execute. I don’t have a solid answer.

  • That’s great. How is this a response to the movie or my review? (This is not a general discussion of the death penalty.)

  • Danielm80


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