Devil’s Knot ✮✮
Into the Woods, Again
by Glenn Lovell
It’s no surprise that Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan was drawn to Robin Hood Woods, located outside West Memphis, Ark. In his best-known films ‒ “The Sweet Hereafter” and “Exotica” ‒ Egoyan has peered into ominous symbolic thickets, wrestled with small-town angst and communal guilt, elements very much on display in his latest film, “Devil’s Knot.”
Based on the 1993 murders of three eight-year-old boys who, late one afternoon, biked into a densely wooded park, this true-life crime drama covers a lot of the same ground as “Paradise Lost,” the acclaimed three-part documentary by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Like the nonfiction film, “Devil’s Knot” focuses on West Memphis’s rush to judgment. In the eyes of the police and townsfolk, this was an open-and-shut case perpetrated by three teenagers into satanic rituals and heavy-metal music — “gateways to violence and destruction.”
Never mind that a prime suspect, slathered in mud and blood, was spotted going into the restroom at a nearby Bojangles’ restaurant.
“Devil’s Knot,” available on VOD, stars Reese Witherspoon and Alessandro Nivola as the blue-collar Pam and Terry Hobbs, parents of one of the victims. Colin Firth at his most maddeningly passive plays an investigator for the defense who’s also a staunch anti-death-penalty advocate. Egoyan regular Elias Koteas appears as a probation officer; Bruce Greenwood is the hardly impartial judge in the trial; and Mireille Enos (AMC’s “The Killing”) has a bizarre walk-on as a mother whose elaborate lies place her and her young son at the center of the investigation.
Dane DeHaan, James Hamrick and Kristopher Higgins are the accused youths, soon to be labeled the West Memphis Three. Only the goth-like Hamrick stands out as the alleged instigator of the crime.
Even if it didn’t follow the “Paradise Lost” documentaries, “Devil’s Knot” wouldn’t leave much of an impression. The scenario has all the suspense and urgency of a mediocre Lifetime melodrama. Most of the characters, including Witherspoons’ hysterical mother, come off as either Bible-thumpers or stereotypical trailer trash. Firth’s do-gooder investigator garners no respect from either the townsfolk or the suspects because he has no real authority. Little wonder he spends so much time staring into his coffee at the local diner.
I’m betting you’ll have little patience with this well-meant but middling affair, especially after HBO’s “True Detective” series, which also covers a police investigation into ritualistic backwoods slayings. The difference between that show and what Egoyan has wrought ‒ a little something called edge.
DEVIL’S KNOT ✮✮ With Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth, Mireille Enos. Directed by Atom Egoyan; scripted by Paul Harris Boardman, Scott Derrickson. 114 min. Unrated (would be R for profanity, gruesome makeup effects)