[ Director: Atom Egoyan; Screenwriters: Paul Harris Boardman, Scott Dericksom; Starring: Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Dane DeHaan, James Hamrick, Allesandro Nivola, Stephan Moyer, Bruce Greenwood, Elias Koteas, Mireille Enos, Kevin Durand, Seth Meriwhether; Running time: 114 minutes; Certification: 15 ]
Dramatical accounts of well-documented true stories have a history of failing to make the mark. The simple reason is that a documentary’s one goal is to inform its audience, not necessarily entertain, through fact, and potentially approach from a defensive standpoint by offering up both sides of an argument depending on the standpoint the filmmaker wants to take. It’s afforded the time to be drawn out and detail-ridden as essentially playing the role of a textbook (albeit hopefully an interesting one). Dramas, on the other hand, are forced to move quickly, to create conflict, to make exciting things happen where perhaps there were none in the real story. If said drama comes after an audience has already been told the story in compelling detail, it’s hard for it to regain their attention with fictionalised events. That’s where Devil’s Knot gets lost; it’s unable to successfully dramatize a complex and fact-heavy case that will grip its viewers – or rather, it’s disinterested in doing so.
Based on the 1993 murders of three eight year old boys in West Memphis and the witch-hunt that followed to convict three teenagers accused of Satanic worship in connection with the crime, the film plays out in strange, sporadic ways. It’s a little bit like the grieving family out for vengeance story, a little bit like the troubled private investigator seeking glory, a little bit like a police investigation docudrama, a little bit like a courtroom drama. Ultimately the killer problem is that the narrative becomes stunted and bogged down with facts and details rather than compelling drama. It conjures all these generic melodramatic elements yet hinders itself with a strangely muddled and confusing structure. Yes the courtroom stuff is quite interesting, yes the police case is quite interesting, yes the private investigator’s attempts to find the real culprit is quite interesting, but none of it flows together.
Yet still it’s an undeniably interesting and terribly moving story, and it’s impossible not to get wrapped up in the emotions on occasion. Reese Witherspoon, admittedly not at the top of her game in this case, still offers up a gut-punch when the horrible news filters through. Not anyone, parent or otherwise, can be unmoved by the idea of losing a child in such horrendous conditions. The whole of the cast is filled out by some surprising names. Aside from the main players Witherspoon and an unrecognisably beardy, American Colin Firth, Stephen Moyer, Bruce Greenwood, Elias Koteas and personal favourite Dane DeHaan step in to provide strong foundations.
There are unquestionably things to like about Devil’s Knot. Some fine performances and interesting discussions about religion and the way narrow-minded persecution latches onto people during times of hysteria offers up enough interest, but the muddled, fact-obsessed narrative dampens its power.