Resse Witherspoon (cradled by Alessandro Nivolo) is one of the better parts of the West Memphis Three docudrama "Devil's Knot." Credit: Image Entertainment
'Devil's Knot' Director: Atom Egoyan Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth Rating: NR 2 (out of 5) Globes
At some point, Atom Egoyan could have made a terrific film out of “Devil’s Knot.” It even feels at times like a quasi-remake of one of his best films. “The Sweet Hereafter,” from Russell Banks' novel, deals with the aftermath of a school bus crash that killed most of its inhabitants; “Devil’s Knot” concerns the real-life rape and murder of three Arkansas boys, which was wrongfully pegged on the so-called “West Memphis Three.” Like “The Sweet Hereafter,” “Devil’s Knot” deals with bottomless grief, and it repeats that film’s most daring structural move: focusing in large part on an ancillary character — Ian Holm’s ambulance-chasing lawyer there, Colin Firth’s investigator here.
But in practice the films couldn’t be more different. Egoyan’s style — playing with multiple timelines, the past invading the present and vice-versa — is apparent sometimes, as in maybe two or three times at most. The rest is pure director-for-hire bland, even if the material would seem to cry out for his signature brand. The film spans from the incident, elegantly elided, to the West Memphis Three heading to jail, where they would spend 19 years. But that leaves little for Egoyan, the stylist and explorer of memory and its relation to video and Internet technology, to do.
He fares best with Reese Witherspoon’s Pamela Hobbs, mother of victim Stevie Branch, but largely because Witherspoon finds the right way to underplay her feelings so that they seem to render her incapable of communication. He’s at a loss with what to do with the expansive all-star cast, including Dane DeHaan as an early suspect and Mireille Enos as a trashy town newbie. (Egoyan gives token roles to two of his great alumni, Bruce Greenwood and Elias Koteas, but their presence mostly serves as a sad reminder that Egoyan no longer seems able to make movies like 1994's “Exotica.”)
In fact, a lot of "Devil's Knot" plays like broad dress-up, recreating scenes and characters made famous not only by the incident’s hyper-coverage in the news, but also in the four documentaries made of it. (Kevin Durand’s portrayal of John Mark Byers, the rambling and showboating stepfather of one of the slain children, is particularly egregious, though it’d be hard to play him with any subtlety.)
A masterpiece has already been made about this: the 1996 doc “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” which was there at the start of the trial and slowly came to the realization that the three teens convicted of the crime were innocent. The two follow-ups are more DVD bonus features than films, while 2012's “West of Memphis” did little but summarize what has already been shown. This is something different: a curiously flat docudrama with few essential reasons to exist, among them Witherspoon’s fine work. All that is wrong with it can be summed up in one scene: Witherspoon visits her son's old classroom, asking for the teacher to grade the paper he was never able to turn in. It's a chilling portrait of her inner turmoil — one that's soon upended by a group hug. There's so much promise, but even its high points are sabotaged by a crushing laziness.