Film review: Devil’s Knot (15, 114 min)

Devil's Knot: Colin Firth
Devil's Knot: Colin Firth
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Colin Firth left tying the script all up in Knots

In 1967, Martin Luther King proudly paraphrased the words of abolitionist Theodore Parker when he proclaimed, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.

That arc took a long time to reach the close-knit Arkansas community of West Memphis.

On May 5, 1993, three eight-year-old boys – Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore – went out to play on their bicycles and never returned home.

The following day, the youngsters’ bodies were recovered from a muddy creek in Robin Hood Hills: all three were naked, bound hands to feet with their shoe-laces.

West Memphis’ deeply religious community sought justice and the finger of suspicion pointed at 18-year-old Damien Echols, a heavy metal fanatic with an interest in white witchcraft, and his two friends, 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley Jr and 16-year-old Jason Baldwin.

After hours of police interrogation, Misskelley Jr confessed to the murders and the three teenagers stood trial.

The accused vigorously protested innocence but a jury found them guilty and sentenced Baldwin and Misskelley Jr to life and Echols to death by lethal injection.

More than 18 years after they entered prison, the men were released on a special plea deal after DNA evidence cast doubt on the convictions.

The case of the West Memphis Three has inspired numerous documentaries including Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s exhaustive Paradise Lost trilogy and Amy Berg’s tour-de-force 2012 feature West Of Memphis.

Devil’s Knot pointlessly dramatises emotionally charged proceedings from the point of view of private investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth), who was hired by the defence team to cast doubt on the guilt of the suspects.

In Atom Egoyan’s film, Ron and his assistant Glori (Collette Wolfe) pore over case files and discover flaws in the prosecution’s case.

However, Judge David Burnett (Bruce Greenwood) seems determined to secure a swift conviction.

While many in West Memphis bay for the blood of Echols (James Hamrick), Baldwin (Seth Meriwether) and Misskelley Jr (Kristopher Higgins), Stevie’s mother Pam (Reese Witherspoon) also becomes concerned by the discrepancies in the evidence and she wonders whether her husband Terry (Alessandro Nivola) and Christopher’s stepfather John Mark (Kevin Durand) might be implicated in the heinous crime.

Dedicated to the memories of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore, Devil’s Knot is a pedestrian reconstruction that lacks any sense of dramatic momentum or narrative focus.

Canadian director Egoyan elegantly contemplated themes of grief and shared loss in his mesmerising 1997 drama The Sweet Hereafter about a bus accident that tears apart a community.

Here, he demonstrates none of the same sensitivity or acuity, trudging coolly through the facts as Oscar winners Firth and Witherspoon struggle in vain to conjure emotion from a linear, plodding script.

The film’s intentions are unquestionably noble but the execution leaves a great deal to be desired.

Drama/Thriller. Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Alessandro Nivola, Kevin Durand, James Hamrick, Seth Meriwether, Kristopher Higgins, Bruce Greenwood, Collette Wolfe. Director: Atom Egoyan.