Director: Atom Egoyan
Starring: Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, James Hamrick, Rex Lin, Seth Meriwether, Kristopher Higgins, Kevin Durand, Dane DeHaan
In 1993, the town of West Memphis, Arkansas was rocked by the brutal murder of three young boys. After a short investigation, three teenage boys, who would come to be known as the West Memphis Three, were arrested for the crimes. Despite stunning investigative blunders, a complete lack of physical evidence linking them to the murders and a confession filled with errors, they were found guilty of the murders. On 19th August 2011, after the presentation of new evidence, the West Memphis Three were released from prison having served 18 years. Devil’s Knot, based on investigative journalist Mara Leveritt’s bestselling book, explores the farcical events which saw the three teens convicted.
The film has two main protagonists. Pam Hobbs is the mother of one of the murdered children. Ron Lax is a private investigator. Between them we are given two perspectives on the events. Pam gives us the view of the shaken townspeople, Ron a seemingly more impartial view of the facts. Rather than seeking to answer the question of who actually committed the crimes, Devil’s Knot is more interested in examining how a community deals with fear. We watch as a town gripped with hysteria turns on those who are different. The three teenagers are vilified for their black clothes, heavy metal music and interest in the occult, none of which is acceptable behaviour in this conservative Bible-belt town. We see how an investigation literally became a witch hunt, and the legal systems of the town were deployed to simulate retribution. We watch people whose desire for answers and to apportion blame trumps their sense of logic and reason.
The case of the West Memphis Three has already been the subject of numerous books and documentaries, some of them quite good. Where Devil’s Knot struggles to add to this pool of material is that it does not have a clear purpose. Pre-production on the film started before the release of the trio. As such, its initial purpose was to expose the trial for the farce that it was and to campaign for the release of the three no-longer-young men. However, when the state of Arkansas released the West Memphis Three, the project’s original purpose was no longer required. While the case is still interesting, and the film presents it methodically, it simply fails to grip you.
A devil’s knot is a knot which theoretically cannot be opened. It is a puzzle without a solution, and that is exactly what we are given with this film. We leave the film with an incomplete picture. Devil’s Knot answers the question of who did it only by concluding that the trio in question did not. The film hopes to trouble us with its lack of resolution, but with this material having been explored before, albeit not in a feature film, its lack of new insight and unwillingness to speculate only serves to frustrate and underwhelm.
Review by Duncan McLean
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