Judge Michael Nazarewycz doesn't worship the devil, but he does like his cake.
Based on the true story of the West Memphis Three.
Every so often a film comes along that looks like it should have become more than what it became. Devil's Knot is based on a powerful moment in recent US history. It is directed by a two-time Oscar nominee. It features two Oscar-winning leads, a rising young star, and a terrific cast of character actors. Everything about it screams "awards bait," and yet I had never heard of the thing. Thinking maybe I missed something, I did a little research, and I missed nothing. IMDb claims that the film had a "limited" US release on May 9, but BoxOfficeMojo has no screen count or financial data at all. I needed to know what happened to this film.
Facts of the Case
In 1993, in West Memphis, Arkansas, three young boys—all eight years old—go missing. The next day, they are found hogtied and dead.
In the wake of the heinous crimes, all levels of local government, from the police to the justice system, feel an enormous amount of pressure from the public and the media to find the killers and prosecute them. They find their men, but are they the right men?
That powerful moment in US history—the one about three dead boys and three convicted murderers? That came to be known as the "West Memphis Three" and it was rather sensational—not only for the loss of three young souls, but for the periphery around it. This is a case that dealt with the occult and accusations of human sacrifice. It's a case where so many facets of the investigation and the trial were tainted by procedural errors, poor decision-making, and (in some cases) questionable motives. It's a case where even a couple of the victims' parents acted in a peculiar manner.
That two-time Oscar-nominated director? Atom Egoyan, he of The Sweet Hereafter, nominated for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Sure, Oscar recognition doesn't necessarily translate to creative excellence over a long period of time, but still, to be in the Top 5 of two different crafts in one year counts for something.
Speaking of Oscar, those two acting nominees? The first is Reese Witherspoon, who plays Pam Hobbs, the mother of one of the victims. She won the Best Actress award for Walk the Line. Yes, she's been in a slump recently, but an excellent supporting turn in 2013's Mud offered hope. The other star is Colin Firth, who plays Ron Lax, a successful independent investigator who offers his services to the public defenders pro bono because of his staunch opposition to the death penalty. Firth won a Best Actor Oscar for The King's Speech. And that rising young star? Dane DeHaan, most recently of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but also of many other genres, including The Place Beyond the Pines, Metallica: Through the Never, and Lincoln.
So with all of this talent, with such an all-star roster, what happened to this film? It dulled itself into obscurity. But how?
The character actors are not to blame. In fact, they are the highlight of the picture, particularly Durand, who, as the God-fearing, occult-hating father of one of the victims, channels "that guy" who we always seem to see on local news reports as the eyewitness to tragedy. Here, he is an extended victim of it, and oh so good. Also worth a mention is Greenwood, who plays the judge who makes some jaw-dropping rulings during the case.
The rising star is not to blame. DeHaan, when he's in the movie, is very good. The problem is that he isn't in the movie much. In fact, it's surprising to me that he has third billing behind Firth and Witherspoon.
The leads? They are part of the problem. Witherspoon is frustrating to watch. Taking Mud off the table, her work since Walk the Line has left much to be desired, and it continues here. She isn't bad, she simply doesn't shine. Other than that moment when her character realizes that her son is dead, she mopes through the picture. She is a character actress in a lead actress' body.
Firth is in a slightly different position. He, too, gives an uninspired performance, but in his defense, he is horribly miscast. As much as I like him as an actor, playing an American southerner (with fabulously poofy hair) does not fit him in the least.
That lays the bulk of the blame on Egoyan. His direction is procedural drama by-the-numbers, and seems far more fitting for a very special two-hour Law and Order episode. Yes, he has his moments, such as when the boys are discovered or with a particular dream that Firth's character has, but there are too few of those. Egoyan also opts to include a throw-in plotline about Lax's divorce, combined with a flirtatious waitress at the diner the investigator frequents, neither of which are ever developed. These bits are unnecessary to the point of being detrimental to the flow of the story.
With so much going for it, Devil's Knot had the potential for greatness. Instead, it wallows in mediocrity.
The standard def 1.78:1 widescreen presentation is perfectly fine. All images appear mostly without flaw, although bright exteriors set behind dimmer interiors (think windows behind people in a house) washout around the edges. The Dolby 5.1 surround track does a fine job managing the unchallenging mix of dialogue, ambient noise, and score.
Three extras accompany the Devil's Knot DVD. The first is "The Making of Devil's Knot" (6:56). It's less a making-of and more a collection of thoughts on the subject matter from Egoyan, Witherspoon, Firth, other cast members, and other behind-the-scenes players. Next is "Getting Into Character: The Cast of Devil's Knot" (7:47). Here, Witherspoon, Firth, and others discuss how they approached the characters they were going to play; Egoyan adds thoughts. Finally there is a pair of Deleted Scenes running a total of 5:42. They both are presented raw and were good to have been cut.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Powered by the stunning source material and the character actors' performances, this film is not a complete loss. There is enough compelling entertainment here that the 114-minute run time is not entirely arduous.
The most remarkable thing about Devil's Knot is how unremarkable it is. It isn't bad, it just isn't anything special. This is surprising, given the tale and the level of talent assembled—both of which help keep it from sinking entirely.
Not Guilty…by split decision.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: RLJ Entertainment
• Deleted Scenes
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