Three children go into the woods and vanish. The image comes early in Devil’s Knot and it’s the start of a long, difficult journey. Where did they go? What happened to them? The film has no easy answers, just a lot of questions, doubts, and lingering uneasy feelings.
Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot focuses on the population of a small Arkansas town as they deal with the explosive aftermath of a horrible crime. As the families and loved ones of the victims, particularly a bereaved mother played by Reese Witherspoon, deal with the traumatic events, the police search for those responsible. When a break in the case leads them to three Goth teenagers who may or may not have ties to satanic practices, the town seems to have some much-needed answers. But as due process lumbers forward, the grieved religious community starts to feel more and more like a powder keg about to go off and a private investigator (Colin Firth) starts to suspect there may be more to the case than is immediately apparent.
The film is based on a real life 1993 murder and the subsequent investigation, arrest, and trial of the teenaged boys that eventually came to be known as the West Memphis Three. While the film is clearly a dramatization of the relevant persons and events, it constantly works to remind you of its basis in fact. Titles appear identifying characters as they enter the story, or letting you know the exact date in which the onscreen event is taking place. Scenes that feature camera-wielding reporters or surveillance cameras dutifully cut to a few shots that look like material shot by the in-universe recorders we are seeing. The film works hard to make sure that we never get so absorbed in its storytelling that we forget the real-life tragedy that motivated it.
This is the main reason why Devil’s Knot never fully comes together as a film experience. The tone it takes in its presentation of events and characters is so removed, so clinically cold, that after a while it feels more like a list of events rather than a unified story. The meticulous reporting is so concerned with the minutiae that it ends up dampening the parts of the story that are emotionally compelling. And there’s a lot to be compelled by here. The film touches on murder, loss, religious fervor, media witch hunts, Satanism, stereotyping, and mob mentality, all wrapped up in a twisty, mysterious, and infuriatingly murky murder investigation. There’s a cracking good story to be had here, but the telling is so focused on documenting the emotions of the real-life events that it doesn’t always do its job when it comes to getting the audience to actually feel the emotions of the film events.
Firth’s private investigator, our access point into the intricacies of the murder investigation, is particularly guilty of this. The character is terse and cold, the bits and pieces we learn about his personal life more referred to than paid off. We constantly hear about his recent divorce and go through multiple scenes of him interacting with a waitress at a diner he frequents, but neither of these threads really comes to any kind of a development or conclusion. These scenes feel like they were included out of some sense of duty to the idea of creating a character with a backstory rather than out of genuine interest in the man’s humanity, and that makes it hard for the viewer to care about them. Why the character even gets involved in the investigation is a throbbing question, and when the film finally gives an answer (of sorts) it’s more absorbed intellectually than truly felt. It’s just Exhibit X in the film’s case rather than a satisfying “ah-ha” moment. Firth is so thoroughly on autopilot in this role that he might as well have been sleepwalking, but he’s not truly at fault. The script gives him nothing to do but draw a line through the case’s investigation, and he does that well. The intention might have been for him to be an academic guide through the case, but the result is just that it’s extremely difficult to get invested in his journey.
Witherspoon fares much better as the film’s central figure of tragedy and emotion. She’s insidiously well cast in the role, as it’s impossible not to be reminded of the cheery southern charmers that she’s played in the past. You just know that her character in this film would be a typical Reese Witherspoon gal if not for the brutal murder of her son, which just adds to her tragedy. She plays the part with a deft combination of agonizing loss, steely fury, and crippling doubt, all barely held together under a fragile surface.
It’s a powerful piece of acting on its own, but one that, unfortunately, is at ends with the film that contains it. Egoyan shoots Witherspoon with the same dispassionate distance he uses for police investigations. The audience is never invited to feel the characters’ emotions, just to take them into consideration as another piece of context for what’s happening in the community. There’s a scene in the film in which Witherspoon revisits her son’s school after his death. In another film, with a different context, tone, and emphasis, this might have been devastating. Here? It just feels out of place.
Egoyan is probably still best known for the critically acclaimed The Sweet Hereafter, which also centered on a small community that is torn asunder by the sudden death of multiple children. The difference is that his earlier film kept its eye squarely aimed at the emotional landscape of the situation and masterfully involved the audience in the feelings of a horrific, inescapable situation. Devil’s Knot serves too many masters to have that kind of focus, and unfortunately the ones it neglects are probably the ones that would have gotten us to care.
The Verdict: 3 out of 5
Devil’s Knot presents a calculated, unflinching look at a horrible real-life murder and takes the audience on a meticulous journey through the nuances of an extremely controversial trial. One suspects that this is exactly what its ambitions were, so credit where it’s due, but something about the proceedings makes them feel very unsatisfying. It might be worth the price of admission for fans of procedurals or those with an interest in the case, but just be prepared to be interested rather than absorbed and convinced rather than moved.