Based on a True Story Crime

True Crime Film Review: Devil's Knot

January 24, 2014Ben MK

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Anatomy of a witch hunt

By Ben Mk

Canadian directors have received a boon from A-list Hollywood talent lately. Last year, it was Québec director Jean-Marc Vallée's riveting biopic, Dallas Buyers Club, starring Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner. Now, it's Atom Egoyan's turn. In his true crime drama, Devil's Knot, Egoyan recounts the infamous 1993 slaying of three young children in West Memphis, Arkansas, the subsequent trials of the suspects — nicknamed the West Memphis Three — and the sinister, Satanic underpinnings of the case.

Much has been made about the disturbing murder case over the years. At the time, it made headlines for the sensationalist details that emerged during the course of the subsequent investigation and criminal trials. The three teenagers accused — Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley — were suspected of having ties to a Satanic cult and committing the murders as a ritualistic act, although evidence supporting this conclusion was circumstantial at best. Ultimately, all three were convicted and sentenced for the crime, although — due to the manner in which the case was handled — many believe that they were wrongfully convicted. And in 2011, after more than 18 years in prison, all three were released as part of a rare Alford Plea deal. To this day, the crime remains unsolved.

As an adaptation of the book by journalist Mara Leveritt, Egoyan structures Devil's Knot as a procedural drama, with minimal lead-in to the crime and greater weighting placed on sifting through its aftermath. Truth be told, due to the especially heinous nature of the murders, not much foundation-laying is necessary to secure the audience's emotional investment. The early frames of the film are painted with ominous overtones, creating an unsettling atmosphere that culminates in the discovery of the victims' bodies, in a scene played out in gut-wrenching fashion. From that point onward, the primary focus shifts to the suspects, the investigation and the trials; but Egoyan continues to weave the thread of tragedy throughout the fabric of the film — by way of Reese Witherspoon's performance as the distraught mother of one of the victims — maintaining its emotional charge. The credibility of the storytelling is further upheld by the knockout cast, which also includes Alessandro Nivola as Witherspoon's husband and Colin Firth as a private investigator with a particular interest in the case, with a myriad of supporting roles filled by the likes of Mireille Enos, Dane DeHaan, Stephen Moyer, Elias Koteas, Bruce Greenwood and Amy Ryan.

Those hungry for new insight into the case should realize that there's little more that Devil's Knot can uncover that hasn't already been brought to light. Sticking to widely-held beliefs, the film operates under the de facto assumption that West Memphis law enforcement was more interested in finding scapegoats than apprehending the real killer(s), playing out the various levels of investigative incompetence and planting seeds of doubt about the trio's guilt along the way. As the trial progresses, it illustrates proceedings devolving into a farce, further cementing the assertion that there was ultimately no justice served in this case. Though it's absolutely a reflection of how the real-life events transpired, by the end of it all, what we're left with is an unsettling lack of closure — with more questions than answers and a sense of dissatisfaction with where the characters' arcs have taken us.

The Bottom Line

After dissecting the horrific events that shook one sleepy, tight-knit community over twenty years ago, the line between what's more shocking — the crime itself or the fallout from it — becomes even more blurred. But as horrific as the murders were, the main focus of Devil's Knot isn't the victims, but the apparent, gross miscarriage of justice that resulted. Egoyan's film is a worthwhile primer for the case — anchored by the heartbreaking story of a mother's loss — but it can't provide closure where there isn't any, which is ultimately what audiences will be looking for. [★★★]

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