If it existed in a vacuum, Devil’s Knot would be a competently made, moderately intriguing procedural about the murder of three young boys in a small Arkansas town. But this fictionalization of the famous West Memphis Three case — in which a group of local heavy-metal fans was charged with the crime despite shaky evidence — automatically raises comparisons to the numerous documentaries on the topic. In that light, Devil’s Knot comes up short.
Director Atom Egoyan ( The Sweet Hereafter, Chloe), working from a script by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson, bases his film on the nonfiction book Devil’s Knot, an examination of the case by journalist Mara Leveritt. However, Egoyan makes the center of his story not the three accused — Damien Echols (James Hamrick), Jessie Misskelley Jr. (Kristopher Higgins) and Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether✔) — but the mother of one of the murdered boys, Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), and the investigator, Ron Lax (Colin Firth), hired by the lawyers for those on trial. These story strands overlap as both come to the realization that the circumstantial evidence doesn’t quite add up.
It’s an understandable approach given that Egoyan probably didn’t want to just rehash what everyone knows already. And the cast, including Amazing Spider-Man 2 co-star Dane DeHaan and The Killing’s Mireille Enos, is strong.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the focus feels off, as if the three young men charged with a crime they probably didn’t commit, and a town swept up in the ensuing hysteria, are just background.
Another minus: Egoyan takes a straightforward approach to the material that sometimes feels like episodic TV. Still, if Devil’s Knot spurs some viewers to check out the outstanding documentaries on the subject, such as West of Memphis or the “Paradise Lost” trilogy, it won’t have been totally in vain.
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THE DEVIL’S KNOT
Director: Atom Egoyan
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth
Rated: Unrated (mature themes)
Running time: 114 min.