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Devil's Knot – Movie Review

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Devil’s Knot – Movie Review

Rating: B+ (Very Good)

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Much material has been produced about the West Memphis Three case, where three teenagers were arrested for the murder of a trio of young boys. The case was explored at great depth in the Paradise Lost series of documentaries that have spent over a decade in production. So why make a scripted recreation of the events with big-name actors? Atom Egoyan manages to present an interesting perspective on the material, showing the various points of view and how such a horrible event can affect a small town. Admittedly, the screenplay by Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman doesn’t present anything that wasn’t previous known from watching Paradise Lost, but they nonetheless succeed in putting together a solid courtroom drama with a great deal of respect for the real people involved.

Atom Egoyan has always been a director strong on atmosphere and he brings his visual style nicely to this film, which in many ways shares thematic ideas with The Sweet Hereafter in how it focuses on people affected by a tragedy. He does well in dividing time between the various residents, whether it be the accused teenagers or the distraught parents. At the center of it all is the investigator Ron Lax, stuck in the middle of a case where it seems like the jury has already come to a conclusion long before the trial has started. Lax is definitely an outsider in this town and has to conflict with not only the residents, but even the lawyers. He realises, as do we, that the authorities have come to their conclusions too quickly. However, when so much evidence has been hidden, how and where do you dig to find the right answers? Egoyan is smart not to make these characters basic, as these are real people with a lot of thoughts running through their ideas, sometimes uncertainly. Pam Hobbs, one of the mothers of the diseased boys, is stuck between grief and hoping this whole horrible ordeal comes to an end. Yet, she does not fall for the blame game like the other townsfolk.

The convicted teenagers thrown into the case are all portrayed as appropriately strange, yet there’s still a sense of confusion among them when the police come knocking. Damien Echols’ portrayal is of an outcast with his own wild ideas about death and blood, so there is certainly an understanding as to why he would be one of the first suspects in the case. However, to completely disregard basic detective work and point fingers at somebody merely for an interest in the occult and for wearing black clothing is the equivalent of a witch hunt. On the other hand, the script doesn’t flat-out say that they are innocent or not, even though history has since given us a more proper answer. Atom Egoyan does not portray the West Memphis police as incompetent, but rather that their quick jump to conclusions shows a fault in the system. Even when a possible suspect is staring the police right in the face, after entering a restaurant bloodied up, this suspicious man is ignored for unknown reasons. One almost wonders whether the people of West Memphis were waiting for a tragedy to happen, so they could have an excuse to go on a witch hunt for so-called Satanic worshippers. Watching both the Paradise Lost documentaries and Devil’s Knot, it’s hard not to be suspicious of the whole ordeal.

The murdered children’s parents are also not let off the hook. They are noticeably upset, but react in different ways, fitting into the idea of the film looking at multiple points of view. Pam Hobbs is certainly the most sympathetic of the lot with Reese Witherspoon displaying the right distraught emotions and it’s not hard to see the closeness she felt to her son. This is a woman whose entire world has come crushing down and Witherspoon manages to make the audience feel for her plight. She is also intelligent enough to know that Lax is not a bad person for defending the West Memphis Three. One scene in a classroom that could have come off as overtly schmaltzy is actually effective in its presentation. Her husband has more of a head on his shoulders and one wonders if he has ever dealt with somebody in pain by the way he treats his wife, though Egoyan never makes him a despicable character. He is simply mourning in his own, quieter way. On the opposite side of the spectrum is John Mark Byers, who continually makes an effort to make a show for the cameras, including Paradise Lost director Joe Berlinger (who makes a quick background cameo). Having seen the documentary, Kevin Durand’s performance is actually a more restrained version of the real person.

Atom Egoyan understands the tragedy of the situation and he manages to not trivialize the real events with his dramatization. While it has his trademark swooping camera shots, Devil’s Knot still feels like a real account of what happened in the early 1990s. Unlike the townspeople who are quick to point fingers at Satanism, Egoyan does not look at the West Memphis Three case with a one-sided mindset. The investigation had its faults, there was a lot of jumping to conclusions and three young boys may have been sentenced to prison for lackluster reasons. However, he manages to be diplomatic in how he portrays the case as well as the different feelings manifested by the grieving parents. Everybody is flawed and going through their own troubles and by looking at each person individually and fairly, this is a story with no hero or villain. It is merely a bunch of people reacting to a tragic event in their own way. The Paradise Lost trilogy is likely still the best source for information on this case, but Atom Egoyan has directed a docudrama that is gripping and a respectful companion piece.

Review By: Stefan Ellison


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