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Devil’s Knot (2014)

| April 17, 2014 | 0 Comments

Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot is wholly unnecessary.  Here is a fictionalized recreation of the brutal 1993 murders of three elementary school boys from West Memphis, Arkansas that has already been documented to death, first in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s brilliant 1996 documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and then in three subsequent follow-ups.  If you’ve seen those films then you already know all the people involved.  Those films were intricately detailed portraits of West Memphis with all its oddball characters and bizarre hysterical theories that led to the conviction three teenagers that the community believed were serving the devil.  By this point, what can Egoyan’s fictional narrative tell us that we don’t already know?  The short answer: not much.

It is not for lack of talent.  Egoyan is a brilliant filmmaker.  His most effective landscape has been the wilderness of his native Canada.  His best films like Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter deal with events in The Great White North in a way that never seems generic because the territory seems as familiar to him as the letters in his own name.  In stepping outside his usual landscape, he finds himself wading knee-deep in the waters of our expectations.  They recreate the events without the intricate details so their film comes off feeling like a barely passable reenactment.

What is presented in Devil’s Knot (which is named after the wooded area in which the three boys were found) is a fictional narrative that never comes close to the details presented in Berlinger and Sinofsky’s documentary.  The monumental task for Egoyan and his screenwriters Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson, is to create the same kind of creepy effectiveness that we got from the documentary.  Yet, where the documentary had the advantage of prying into the private lives of the families and the legal team, this docudrama finds its focus on Ronald Lax (Colin Firth), the private investigator who took on the defense pro bono.  In doing so, many of the major players remain off-screen.  The three accused teenagers, Jesse Misskelley, Damian Echols and Jason Baldwin remain shadows here.  We see them fleetingly, mostly in the backgrounds.

The same goes for the families.  There were six families devastated by this crime, but the film focuses almost exclusively on Pamela Hobbs the single mother of one of the victims.  She’s played by Reese Witherspoon in a performance that feels somehow muted and unfocused, as if the real meat of her performance was left on the cutting room floor.

What is strange is that Egoyan and his screenwriters would focus on the relatively banal figure of Hobbs (from a fictional standpoint anyway) when the most curious mainstay of the case has always been John Mark Byers, the stepfather of Christopher Byers, one of the murder victims.  Byers was always the most outspoken of the grieving parents, a creepy and laconic man who spoke passionately about his faith in God while his background contained elements of a life of bitter chaos: DUIs, blackouts, hallucinations, violence, a brain tumor, restraining orders.  Plus there was that strange business in 1996 when his wife Melissa (and Christopher’s mother) suddenly died of “undetermined causes.”  Those details are to be found in the documentary.  In Egoyan’s film, Byers is seen fleetingly in the backgrounds.

Even from the standpoint of filmmaking, Devil’s Knot never really breathes with life.  Egoyan is the master of his canvas, an expert at knowing how to paint a portrait of a grieving town, as he did in his great 1998 film The Sweet Hereafter about the deaths of several school children when their school bus crash through the ice.  The weight of that film came from the community that had to deal with those events.  It could reasonably be hoped that he could create the mourning atmosphere of West Memphis, Arkansas that led to the suspicions and hysteria about Satanic cult rituals on which the three teens were accused.  Yet, it doesn’t work because our brains are so fine-tuned into the real facts and the real people, that any fiction feels phony by comparison.


About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.