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DIRECTOR: Atom Egoyan
CAST: Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth, Dane DeHaan, Alessandro Nivola, James Hamrick, Elias Koteas, Amy Ryan
RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes
THREE years ago, the Toronto International Film Festival attendees saw the conclusion of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost trilogy, which documented the wrongful conviction and hard-won release of the West Memphis Three; at Sundance the next year, we saw Amy Berg’s West of Memphis, a film that brought new evidence to bear on the same subject.
Now comes Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot, a dramatisation focusing on the period between the murder of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, and the conviction of three teens who clearly didn’t kill them.
Far from being overkill, the well-conceived drama featuring Witherspoon and Firth will bring this tale of injustice to many for the first time; it has every hope of receiving a strong reception and drawing even more attention to a horrifying crime whose perpetrator or perpetrators remain free.
Witherspoon plays Pam Hobbs, mother of one of the victims, Stevie Branch. We meet her as she walks the boy home from school, then stands at the kitchen sink, watching her son bike away for the last time.
Her emotional state over the coming year – from the panic on that first night, looking for her missing child, to her post-trial suspicions that the wrong people were jailed – represents the perspective of the victims’ families.
Her strained relationship with husband Terry (Nivola), who copes with the loss very differently, illustrates the conflict between wanting to close the book and allowing seeds of doubt to grow.
The disappearance of Stevie and two friends is followed by a search in the woods reminiscent of the solemn hunt for a murdered girl in Egoyan’s Exotica. But unlike that structurally complex film, this one plays straight with chronology, seeming to respect the real-world suffering of its subjects too much to distract from it with formal artistry.
The small bit of information-withholding it does – at the start of the investigation phase, we see nothing suggesting unethical behaviour or incompetence by the police – helps the viewer identify with locals who assumed the case was closed when officials charged three teens and were desperate to see them punished.
Of those boys – Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin – only Echols (Hamrick) gets much attention from the film.
A heavy metal-loving brooder who had studied the occult and sometimes exaggerated his interests to get a rise out of clueless adults, Echols couldn’t have made a better suspect in the ’90s, when paranoia about “Satanic Ritual Abuse” was rampant and self-styled experts were convinced that small towns everywhere harboured clusters of murderous devil-worshippers.
Hamrick plays down Echols’s bad attitude, particularly once the trial begins, exposing the vulnerability of an 18-year-old many found easy to view as a monster.
Though this is not a legal hero story, the film centres on the efforts of a local investigator, Ron Lax (Firth), who worked on the defendants’ case free of charge even when he thought they were guilty.
At first motivated solely by his opposition to the death penalty, Lax digs up enough to upset prosecutors; police harassment of his ex-wife (Ryan) is the film’s first suggestion that something is afoul in the case.
Firth employs Lax’s post-divorce loneliness, illuminating the man’s willingness to be an outsider as he comes to believe Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin are innocent. Seeming to invest more effort and time, uncompensated, than the public defenders employed to defend them, he learns of buried evidence and problematic witness testimony.
Egoyan keeps an emotional lid on courtroom suppression of these discoveries without making the scene lifeless; after the verdict comes in, with Echols given the death penalty, the film envisions just a hint of the direction continuing investigations would go before concluding with informative titles.
A closing dedication to the three murdered children is more moving than many such gestures, reminding us that while prosecutorial sins have kept this story alive as one of three teen lives stolen by the state, three even younger boys were robbed of something much greater. – Hollywood Reporter
If you liked Prisoners or The Sweet Hereafter you will like this.