Directed by: Atom Egoyan.
Written by: Paul Harris Boardman & Scott Derrickson based on the book by Mara Leveritt.
Starring: Reese Witherspoon (Pam Hobbs), Colin Firth (Ron Lax), Kevin Durand (John Mark Byers), Alessandro Nivola (Terry Hobbs), James Hamrick (Damien Echols), Dane DeHaan (Christopher Morgan), Bruce Greenwood (Judge David Burnett), Mireille Enos (Vicki Hutcherson), Elias Koteas (Jerry Driver), Amy Ryan (Margaret Lax), Rex Linn (Inspector Gary Gitchell), Kristopher Higgins (Jessie Misskelley, Jr.), Seth Meriwether (Jason Baldwin), Jet Jurgensmeyer (Stevie Branch), Brandon Carroll (Bobby DeAngelo), Stan Houston (Det. Donald Bray), Stephen Moyer (John Fogelman).
Atom Egoyan is one of the greatest directors to ever come out of Canada. Films like Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter are among the greatest Canadian films ever made, and he has a hand full of other films – The Adjuster, Felcia’s Journey, Ararat, and even the underrated Where the Truth Lies and Adoration that show him as a skilled director. But for whatever reason, his last two films have been utter failures. His remake of Anne Fontaine’s Chloe (2009) and now Devil’s Knot were projects that Egoyan did not initiate himself, and as a director for hire, Egoyan cannot manage to bring the same level of passion to the movies. Whether he cannot get more personal projects made, or is simply out of ideas, I do not know – but if he continues this way, his time as an excellent director may well be over.
Devil’s Knot, which is based on the infamous West Memphis Three case, where a triple murder of three young boys, in the small Arkansas town, was pinned on three teenagers who dressed in black and listened to heavy metal music. Joe Berliner and Bruce Sinofsky ended up making three documentaries about the case – the Paradise Lost trilogy – and then Amy Berg made West of Memphis, a documentary in conjunction with the three convicted murders after their controversial release. With four documentaries about the case, in addition to multiple TV specials and books, it is legitimate to wonder if Egoyan and company had anything new to say on the case. Sadly, the answer seems to be no. Still, that’s no excuse for a movie as lazy as Devil’s Knot.
The film’s opening scenes are probably the best. It starts on the day of the murders, and focuses on Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), the mother of one of the victims, who worries when her son doesn’t come on night. However, the movie quickly gets through these scenes after the bodies are discovered, and the focus shifts to Ron Lax (Colin Firth), the investigator who offers his services pro bono to the defense team, because he doesn’t believe that the state should be able to execute three teenagers. He quickly starts to see that the prosecution doesn’t have any actual evidence, aside from the confession of one of the defendants, and even that is full of holes and incorrect facts, and which he later recanted.
One of the main problems with the movie is that Firth’s Lax is the films least interesting character. Firth plays him as emotionally closed off to the point of being monotone, and seemingly bored. Witherspoon, who is good in the opening scenes, is then given an impossible task of playing Hobbs, who goes back and forth between being emotionally closed down, and almost unbelievably loopy. When the trial starts, she is then shunted to the background – and merely has to look surprised at each new revelation. It doesn’t help matters that Alessandro Nivola is horribly miscast as Hobbs’ husband Terry (who, for some, is the main suspect) does everything except twirl his ridiculous looking mustache.
Worse still, there are good performances around the edges of the movie that never get the opportunity to come to the forefront. Mirelle Enos is excellent as a local mother, who gets in trouble with the law, and gets her son to lie to the police, and then agrees to go undercover for them as a goth MILF to get information from the suspects. Dane DeHaan is very good as another early suspect, who does the same thing as one of the accused – confesses and recants – although he is never charged. James Hamrick is excellent as the “ring leader” of the accused – Damien Echols, nailing the kid with the false bravado seen in the original Paradise Lost. Best of all may be Kevin Durand as John Michael Byers, well known to everyone who saw the first two Paradise Lost films. He nails his slow, Southern drawl and over the top Biblical ravings.
Had Egoyan cast a wider net – and concentrated more on these characters and a town gripped by “Satanic Panic” rather than focus on the trial and all the revelations – well known to pretty much anyone who will watch the film – he could have crafted something along the lines of The Sweet Hereafter. Instead, he has made a dull, rather lifeless film. Anyone who knows anything about the case won’t find out any new information, and those unfamiliar won’t find anything about this film all that interesting. As a result, I’m not quite sure who the hell would ever want to watch the film. I have faith that Egoyan can make a great film again one day. But I think it’s time for him to go make something more personal. As a director for hire, he cannot hide his lack of interest.
Note: I saw Devil’s Knot at TIFF 2013 – and the film is now opening in Toronto (as far as I know, an American release is coming later). I haven’t heard that Egoyan has re-edited the film in any way since I saw it at TIFF – yet given the largely negative reviews, it wouldn’t surprise to learn he did. Unless he started from scratch though, I feel confident in saying the movie stinks.