Reviews - Specialty Releases


Film Review: Devil's Knot

A dull retelling of the original 1994 West Memphis Three trial that brings nothing new to the table but underwhelming performances and a wishy-washy refusal to state an opinion about the real killer’s identity.

May 8, 2014

-By Nick Schager


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1399868-Devils_Knot_Md.jpg
After four documentaries and a superb investigative-journalism book, it’s hard to imagine what’s left to say about the infamous West Memphis Three case, in which Arkansas teens Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were convicted in 1994 of murdering three boys—not on the basis of physical evidence, but because of their fondness for heavy metal and Satanism—and then, after years of appeals and protests on their behalf, were freed in 2011. Certainly, Devil’s Knot brings nothing new to the table, except some subpar acting and a frustrating wishy-washiness.

Working from Mara Leveritt’s 2002 tome Devil’s Knot, director Atom Egoyan treats his material like a made-for-TV courtroom drama, focusing on the railroading that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley received from a legal system, and religiously zealous community, that was so interested in finding a culprit for the crimes that it ignored the fact that those on trial couldn’t be tied to the murders in any reasonable way. Rather, all that prosecutors had in their favor was dubious (and since-recanted) testimony, the simpleminded Misskelley’s (obviously phony) confession, and Echols and company’s predilection for black clothes, Slayer music and Aleister Crowley.

As was laid out in detail by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost documentary trilogy, and is restated here, that “evidence” was enough to net Baldwin and Misskelley life in prison, and Echols a death sentence. Devil’s Knot does an adequate job rehashing the search for the missing boys, the investigation to find their killers, and the ensuing trial. However, its dramatization pales in comparison to the real-life suspense and crazy characters found in Berlinger and Sinofsky’s nonfiction trilogy. There’s a sense throughout Egoyan’s film that he’s merely providing a glossy Cliff’s Notes version of the West Memphis Three case—and, perplexingly, only the first third of it, as Egoyan’s work ends with Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley’s 1994 conviction, leaving the last 17 years of their saga to be cursorily wrapped up via epilogue text cards.

As the story of a town trying to come to grips with the unexpected deaths of children, Devil’s Knot would seem a companion piece to Egoyan’s 1997 film The Sweet Hereafter. Yet unlike in that prior, superior effort, the director doesn’t dig deep into individual and communal grief over an unthinkable tragedy so much as he fixates on blatant miscarriages of justice. The entry point into his sprawling tale is an investigator named Ron Lax who, as played by Colin Firth with a terrible Southern accent and a look of sleepy indifference plastered across his face, is a featureless proxy mainly tasked with sitting in the back of the courtroom and doing nothing. And as the mother of one of the murdered kids, Reese Witherspoon weeps and rages but is similarly given so little to work with that the character comes across as a distraction. Alas, her heartfelt performance is incapable of diverting attention away from the fact that Devil’s Knot is an endeavor both aimless and pointless, ultimately casting suspicion on a number of potential suspects (Alessandro Nivola’s father, Dane DeHaan’s unstable teen, Kevin Durand’s knife-wielding loon, a mysterious African-American man) while never having the courage, or even energy, to actually make an argument for one of these shady characters’ guilt.

Click here for cast & crew information.


Film Review: Devil's Knot

A dull retelling of the original 1994 West Memphis Three trial that brings nothing new to the table but underwhelming performances and a wishy-washy refusal to state an opinion about the real killer’s identity.

May 8, 2014

-By Nick Schager


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1399868-Devils_Knot_Md.jpg

After four documentaries and a superb investigative-journalism book, it’s hard to imagine what’s left to say about the infamous West Memphis Three case, in which Arkansas teens Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were convicted in 1994 of murdering three boys—not on the basis of physical evidence, but because of their fondness for heavy metal and Satanism—and then, after years of appeals and protests on their behalf, were freed in 2011. Certainly, Devil’s Knot brings nothing new to the table, except some subpar acting and a frustrating wishy-washiness.

Working from Mara Leveritt’s 2002 tome Devil’s Knot, director Atom Egoyan treats his material like a made-for-TV courtroom drama, focusing on the railroading that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley received from a legal system, and religiously zealous community, that was so interested in finding a culprit for the crimes that it ignored the fact that those on trial couldn’t be tied to the murders in any reasonable way. Rather, all that prosecutors had in their favor was dubious (and since-recanted) testimony, the simpleminded Misskelley’s (obviously phony) confession, and Echols and company’s predilection for black clothes, Slayer music and Aleister Crowley.

As was laid out in detail by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost documentary trilogy, and is restated here, that “evidence” was enough to net Baldwin and Misskelley life in prison, and Echols a death sentence. Devil’s Knot does an adequate job rehashing the search for the missing boys, the investigation to find their killers, and the ensuing trial. However, its dramatization pales in comparison to the real-life suspense and crazy characters found in Berlinger and Sinofsky’s nonfiction trilogy. There’s a sense throughout Egoyan’s film that he’s merely providing a glossy Cliff’s Notes version of the West Memphis Three case—and, perplexingly, only the first third of it, as Egoyan’s work ends with Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley’s 1994 conviction, leaving the last 17 years of their saga to be cursorily wrapped up via epilogue text cards.

As the story of a town trying to come to grips with the unexpected deaths of children, Devil’s Knot would seem a companion piece to Egoyan’s 1997 film The Sweet Hereafter. Yet unlike in that prior, superior effort, the director doesn’t dig deep into individual and communal grief over an unthinkable tragedy so much as he fixates on blatant miscarriages of justice. The entry point into his sprawling tale is an investigator named Ron Lax who, as played by Colin Firth with a terrible Southern accent and a look of sleepy indifference plastered across his face, is a featureless proxy mainly tasked with sitting in the back of the courtroom and doing nothing. And as the mother of one of the murdered kids, Reese Witherspoon weeps and rages but is similarly given so little to work with that the character comes across as a distraction. Alas, her heartfelt performance is incapable of diverting attention away from the fact that Devil’s Knot is an endeavor both aimless and pointless, ultimately casting suspicion on a number of potential suspects (Alessandro Nivola’s father, Dane DeHaan’s unstable teen, Kevin Durand’s knife-wielding loon, a mysterious African-American man) while never having the courage, or even energy, to actually make an argument for one of these shady characters’ guilt.

Click here for cast & crew information.
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