Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama
Directed by: Atom Egoyan
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Dane DeHaan, Stephen Moyer, Colin Firth
The murder of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas on 5th May 1993 was an atrocity bad enough without the subsequent conviction and imprisonment of three teenage boys unlikely to have committed the crime. However, the case of the West Memphis Three is no unknown miscarriage of justice. Four documentaries alone already exist. In light of this, Canadian director Atom Egoyan’s decision to dramatise such well-trodden events might seem superfluous. After watching his lifeless and uninspired film, it’s no longer a case of seeming superfluous. It simply is.
Egoyan starts his film strongly depicting the disappearance of three eight-year-old boys – Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers – and the discovery of their bodies in a creek after an extensive search. With music swirling it’s a powerful start laced with ominous foreboding that blossoms into horror when the bodies are found.
From here, the main accused are gradually introduced until Damien Echols (James Hamrick), Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether) and Jessie Misskelley Jr. (Kristopher Higgins) are facing trial following an investigation that is racked with a series of errors. Interviews are conducted in dubious ways, evidence is lost and personal DNA samples are not sent off for assessment while key information for the defence team is withheld or barred from inclusion in the trial by a disinterested judge (Bruce Greenwood).
The vehicle Egoyan and his screenwriters Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson use to navigate the shifting sands of a convoluted case is investigator Ron Lax played here by a subdued Colin Firth. The involvement of a respectable man, someone whom we see purchasing an antique table for $21,000 early on, is supposed to add credibility to the defence. But Firth is also meant to stand as the implacable moral heart, a man appalled at the death penalty for teenagers and even more appalled at the thought of a miscarriage of justice.
It doesn’t work though. Firth’s Lax is a dry character, hard to engage with. In this he sadly is not alone. No one else is allowed to do much beyond gliding blankly through the motions. Reese Witherspoon is given little to do as Pam Hobbs, mother of one of the murdered children. Aside from an initial breakdown on discovering her dead son, her emotional scenes are all muted. Other strong performers including Dane DeHaan and Amy Ryan are almost entirely wasted in what amount to little more than walk on roles.
The reason the all-star cast goes to waste is because Devil’s Knot has nothing new to bring to the table. This is not an unheard of case that needs light shone on it to drum up interest. There have been major campaigns to free the West Memphis Three with a roster of celebrities involved. The number of books and documentaries that chart events also mean that there is very little ground to traverse that has not been covered many times before.
All Egoyan succeeds in doing is overseeing a dull march through the main points in the case. It’s effectively a bullet point dramatisation of the defence team’s case. With so much focus spent referencing key developments, there is no space to delve deeper. The cool air of detachment in the courtroom highlights this; the vitriolic hatred that the three accused face and the suffering of the families of the deceased feels like it’s occurring behind glass.
Aside from production value, Devil’s Knot brings nothing new to the case. Egoyan seems content to cover old ground in a manner that rarely rises above tedious before reheating an accusation aimed at Terry Hobbs (Alessandro Nivola) – the step-father of one of the murdered children to conclude. Entirely pointless and frequently boring, it’s a waste of time and effort for all involved.