Devil's Knot (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Devil’s Knot (2014)

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Devil's Knot is the dramatized story of the events behind the West Memphis Three.  The film details the investigation behind the murders of three children, the demonization of the suspects, and bungled investigation.  It also tells the story of the emotional toll this tragedy took on the devout town, and how their faith both fueled their resolve to get through the crisis, and their determination to get a guilty verdict - whether the accused deserve it or not.  This is the thirteenth feature-film from director Atom Egoyan, and stars Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon.

Not very flatteringI'm caught in an analytic and emotional crossfire when it comes to Devil's Knot.  It's a dramatized story based on the West Memphis Three, and the film simply would not exist were it not for the multiple Paradise Lost documentaries that preceded it.  This presents a problem in dissociating what the creative team is trying to do with Devil's Knot that hasn't already been done before.  That's the analytic problem, the emotional problem is that I treasure Atom Egoyan's films beyond few others, and he has directed one of two perfect films.

Devil's Knot suffers not exactly because of those two factors, but in details associated with them.  It cannot match the focus and clarity of emotion from the previous documentaries partly because Egoyan is at the helm, applying his elliptical touch to a screenplay that also struggles from differentiating itself from the story already told, and it's ultimately the screenplay that drains the film of any lingering effect.

The material in Devil's Knot is ripe for Egoyan's touch.  The story of the West Memphis Three is one built on the misidentification of cultural threats and a sort of xenophobia, though in this case from people of different religious backgrounds.  It's also a story that was heavily distorted by the media and recording technology, making willing and involuntary stars of the children and adults that led their prejudice to convict Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin.

The themes and story behind Devil's Knot are so familiar to Egoyan that he is free to sample visuals from his previous films, most notably Exotica.

Devil's Knot treads familiar Egoyan ground so he is free to sample visuals from his earlier films, most notably Exotica.

The best scenes in Devil's Knot play in this realm.  Egoyan makes particularly good use of the evolving stories of the testimonies of a lonely mother and her child.  The use of video cements a single lie, and as bits of the truth are pieced together through paper trails and conflicting testimonies, Egoyan revisits the moment and sees how the mother used the disoriented media and wayward teenagers to ease her isolation.  This is classic Egoyan territory, finding a pained emotional core in the midst of conflicting bits of technological representation.

But Devil's Knot also indulges Egoyan in the worst kind of melodrama, where bold emotional proclamations are the standard method of expression.  This isn't bad in and of itself, but the screenplay gives the players of the trial their breakdown, and then moves on with the matter unsettled.    What this amounts to are a series of disconnected scenes of high emotion that find no point of release.  The worst of these involve the private investigator played by Colin Firth, who is going through a messy divorce at the time of the murders, helpfully shown by the folder helpfully labeled "DIVORCE PAPERS" and the groan-inducing conversation with his soon-to-be ex-wife that points out that they, yes, are getting a divorce.

It fits a motif of broken families within the film, but aside from that broad categorization there's no emotional connection between these people, just a series of scenes of high emotion that have little to do with the trial.  What the film lacks is an Other, an all-encompassing obsession that everyone reflects their personal demons onto.  But with so many scenes of people spelling out their issues so clearly, it separates the moments emotionally.  So Egoyan's usual elliptical style, withholding bits of information until we come to the moment that broke everyone, ends up a series of demo reels.

Firth is superb, but can only do so much when he plays a character sketch instead of a person.

Firth is superb, but can only do so much when he plays a character sketch instead of a person.

This emotional dissociation  leads to some scenes which play out with unusual cruelty.  Egoyan is usually the most empathetic of directors but does not find a connection point with the religious extremism that fueled the arrest and conviction of the Three.  The sequence where the murdered children are discovered is nasty, with the camera focusing on the "Jesus is my Savior" bumper sticker before going into a God's Eye overhead shot of the grieving families then off into the woods where the bodies are.  This style is not present anywhere else, and shows God as a merciless voyeur which, again, could have been a strong point about religion in another film but not in one that shows the churchgoers of West Memphis to be little more than ignorant and hateful of what they don't understand.

Religion sometimes breeds miserable people, but when the film centers around murdered children it is borderline evil mockery of their pain.  These moments could have been turned into something powerful, perhaps a look at an Old Testament God testing the people of this town, but the screenplay yanks any free association back to scenes of alternating emotional breakdowns and repetitive showdowns in the courtroom.  The performers are all adrift in this, with Reese Witherspoon suffering the worst as the mother who carries over barely a single consistent trait from scene to scene.  Even Colin Firth, who is still able to suggest a titanic weight on his shoulders with a barely repressed sigh, can only go so far with a character incapable of suggesting anything other than grim determination.

Even though Devil's Knot is a miserable and confounding experience, I know that Atom Egoyan and the performers are still the right people for this story.  They just aren't anchored by a screenplay that is equal to the task at hand.

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Tail - Devil's KnotDevil's Knot (2014)

Directed by Atom Egoyan.
Screenplay written by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson.
Starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth.

Egoyan with text

Posted by Andrew

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