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precarious since 1997 | 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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