The case of the West Memphis Three — the Arkansas teenagers who were convicted in 1994 of the murder and mutilation of three little boys on circumstantial evidence, then released from prison 18 years later by accepting an Alford plea — has already been explored in four documentaries: The Paradise Lost trilogy, in which directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky checked in on the community every four or five years since 1996; and Amy Berg’s excellent 2012 West of Memphis, which was produced by Peter Jackson and made a strong case for a potential suspect in the crime, which the state considers closed but in truth remains unsolved.
The story has been told in such intricate detail, with all of the real people involved, there would seem to be little left over for a feature film. Regardless, you go into The Devil’s Knot curious to see what director Atom Egoyan will do with the material (his Oscar-nominated 1997 drama The Sweet Hereafter, based on Russell Banks’ novel, did a superb job of capturing a small town’s reaction to another tragedy involving children). Egoyan’s cool, vaguely detached approach to storytelling is a good fit for tales about heightened emotions. He’s not much for histrionics or excess: He prefers quiet contemplation and ominous mood (his best film remains 1994’s Exotica, a masterfully restrained puzzle-box with a wallop of an ending).
But Egoyan has been on a creative tailspin since 2005’s Where the Truth Lies, an erotic thriller so bad it borders on Showgirls-level camp. The Devil’s Knot continues his artistic slump, taking a bland, matter-of-fact approach to material rich with dramatic potential (the script was based on Mara Leveritt’s non-fiction book). Instead of pulling back to give us a broader view of a working-class community in the throes of satanic panic trying to come to grips with an unthinkable crime, Egoyan zeroes in on two people: Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), the mother of one of the murdered boys, and Ron Lax (Colin Firth), a private investigator who felt the suspects were being railroaded and tried to gather evidence to help the defense.
The choice of protagonists seems random — why these two in such a large cast of characters? — and relegates the three suspects (played by James Hamrick, Seth Meriwether and Kristopher Higgins) to supporting players in their own story. The movie doesn’t try to get inside the heads of its protagonists: Everything unfolds at a distance. If you’ve seen Paradise Lost, you’ll wince at Witherspoon’s melodramatic portrayal of Hobbs, which smooths over all the real-life woman’s edges and relegates her grief to crying fits and dead-eyed stares. Firth fares better as the detective driven purely by his conscience to go against the grain and dig deeper, but his motivations aren’t well defined. When other people in the movie ask him, “Why are you doing this?” his answers aren’t convincing. Even though he’s playing an actual person, Firth comes off as a plot device, an artificial construct intended to move the story forward.
And if you haven’t seen Paradise Lost, The Devil’s Knot will feel like a dull sit, a talky prologue to a case that became even more fascinating at the moment the movie ends with the trio’s convictions. Egoyan does provide a few details that weren’t in the documentary, such as the interrogation of a fourth boy who claimed to have been present at the scene of the crime and escaped (his testimony was not allowed to be heard in court). But they’re not enough to make The Devil’s Knot anything more than a wan gloss on a horrific nightmare.
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth, Alessandro Nivola, James Hamrick, Seth Meriwether, Kristopher Higgins, Amy Ryan, Bruce Greenwood, Dane DeHaan, Stephen Moyer, Elias Koteas.
Director: Atom Egoyan.
Screenwriters: Paul Harris Boardman, Scott Derrickson. Based on the book by Mara Leveritt.
An RJL/Image Entertainment release. Running time: 114 minutes. Vulgar language, graphic crime scene images, nudity, strong adult themes. Opens Friday May 9 in Miami-Dade only: Aventura.