Not all that long ago, Docudrama released the Paradise Lost Trilogy, a series of three films exploring the death of three eight-year-old boys. Clocking in at an impressive 400 minutes between them, I’m not all that convinced that there’s any single lesson so prevalent as is the fact that the American justice system failed not only the victims and the victims’ families but also the young men accused of having performed these grisly murders. Syphoning through a veritable mountain of circumstantial evidence, a reasonable person might even conclude how charges were brought in this case to begin with … but that’s an argument for another time, another day.
As often happens when Hollywood finds documentaries so compelling, it was only natural that a big budget motion picture follow, and that’s largely what you get with DEVIL’S KNOT: a far theatrical yet much simpler exploration of only a smattering of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth that serves a relatively curtailed narrative. Is it good? Yes. Is it great? Not really.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging: “Three young boys playing in the nearby woods never come home for dinner. In the rush to find and convict the killers, police focus on a trio of teenagers suspected of devil worship. As the mother of one of the murdered boys (Reese Witherspoon) tries to come to grips with this unspeakable tragedy, she is desperate to believe that the killers have been found and will be brought to justice. It is only when a private investigator (Colin Firth) reveals that the evidence doesn’t all add up, that the community is forced to face the reality that the true killer might be still out there.”
Unfortunately, that product packaging isn’t entirely accurate, as Firth’s character – investigator Ron Lax – appears sparingly in the motion picture, but the same could be said of all of these people: they appear in too little screen time for them to legitimately flesh out as real people. What this does is it allows the story – a fascinating one in its own right – to remain front-and-center, thereby robbing DEVIL’S KNOT of what could’ve been a greater emotional connection, that of the mother to her son. Witherspoon tries to muster up what gusto she can, but her best moments here are too few, too far between to have the teeth needed to elevate an otherwise mundane presentation. (Here’s a tip: Witherspoon herself made headlines for screaming at cops not all that long ago, and that’s what she does best here.)
Firth – an actor I’ve never been overly fond of to begin with – is, therefore, given the task of standing in to represent a moral compass for a community which appears to have none … except it’s clear that everyone believes (despite mounting evidence against it) Satanic worship was somehow involved. Firth’s Lax is only given a single scene that I recall against it, and the rest of his time in this story sadly amounts to grim looks with forced puppy-dog-eyes – an all-too-convenient theatrical convention – so, while it’s clear he doesn’t believe justice is being served, he never quite comments sufficiently on ANY possible theory for me, as a viewer, to believe he has a clue.
Isn’t that the problem with justice, though, in films of this nature? The audience is told over and over again (or it’s very strongly implied) that the accused have been branded by evidence entirely circumstantial; but this script by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson (adapted from Mara Leveritt’s book) never tries to sort out the facts and point us in any other logical direction. Instead, they’re only interested in highlighting innocence, leaving us with three dead bodies at the end of the day and no one to hold accountable. Again, it pulls at our heartstrings, sure – I don’t think anyone likes to see anyone else falsely accused – but DEVIL’S KNOT never even attempts to clarify the ‘lies’ told by the accused linking them to the murder, leaving them like a stain we’re only supposed to ignore.
If unsolved mysteries are your preference, then you’ll probably find much to explore in DEVIL’S KNOT. Me? I tend to prefer the less theatrical, more restrained documentaries on the subject. They certainly offer up far more detail to consider, and they make for a much more compelling exploration of the failures of the legal system as they apply to the ‘West Memphis Three.’
DEVIL’S KNOT (2013) is produced by Worldview Entertainment, RLJ Entertainment, and The Weinstein Company. DVD distribution is being handled by RLJ Entertainment and Image Entertainment. As for the technical specifications? The film is smartly made with some very high quality sights and sounds, though I’ll admit I struggled with some of the uninspired cinematography to so much of it; sadly, it plays like your average made-for-TV movie throughout so very much of it. Lastly – if it’s special features you want – then you have some deleted scenes, some cast interviews/reflections, and a making-of short to anticipate.
RECOMMENDED. As disturbed as some might be by DEVIL’S KNOT, I suspect those people would be vastly more disturbed should they seek out the documentaries already made on this subject matter; that’s probably because in order to produce something resembling a filmable story screenwriters Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson have to synthesize a large quantity of additional circumstantial evidence. (Seriously, I’d encourage folks who can sit through documentaries to check those out in lieu of this film; but if flicks are more your ‘thing,’ then this one is good, not great, as it raised more questions than those involved seem interested in addressing.)
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Image Entertainment and RLJ Entertainment provided me with a DVD copy of DEVIL’S KNOT by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.