Sunday, May 11, 2014

Review: Devil's Knot

Image courtesy of Image Entertainment.
Atom Egoyan's "Devil's Knot" is a respectfully done - although containing one quite shocking moment - feature film version of a story that has been told through numerous documentaries at this point - that of the horrific 1993 murders at Robin Hood Hills in West Memphis, Arkansas.

For those unfamiliar with the case, which was chronicled in Joe Berlinger's "Paradise Lost" documentaries as well as Amy Berg's "West of Memphis," three young boys disappeared and were later found bound, naked and mutilated, leading investigators - through botched police work - to arrest teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. The young men, who spent nearly 20 years in prison before being released in 2011, were targeted primarily because two of them rebelled against their Bible Belt town by listening to heavy metal music, dressing in black and purporting to worship Satan.

In the film, Reese Witherspoon plays the religious mother of one of the murdered boys, while Colin Firth plays an investigator who thinks something is fishy about the police work involved and begins working for the attorneys representing Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley.

The first half of the film recreates the young boys going missing, the search and, finally, discovery of their bodies, which is presented in a sequence that is sure to shock some. Much of the rest of the picture is a courtroom drama, during which evidence continues to stack up that should exonerate the three suspects and, perhaps, incriminate a few others. But those familiar with the documentaries made about this case know that the trial became a witch hunt and the police appeared intent enough on finding a scapegoat for the murders to satisfy the town, rather than actually solving the case.

The performances in the film are all pretty good and the subject matter is compelling enough to keep viewers interested. But the problem with "Devil's Knot" is that its story has been exhausted through the four documentaries made on the case and that it doesn't necessarily bring anything new to the table.

One of Egoyan's fascinations has long been the way a tragedy affects a small town. His 1997 masterpiece "The Sweet Hereafter" is a solemnly haunting tale of how a school bus crashed completely unraveled a tight knit community. "Devil's Knot" aims to do the same and while its subject matter is compelling, it's all been done before and more successfully in the documentary format. We learn nothing new about Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley, whose characters are the thinnest of any in this picture, and the filmmaker's decision to focus primarily on their trial, excluding virtually everything about the suspects' 20-year struggle to clear their names, mutes some of the story's power.

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