Review: The West Memphis Three film ‘Devil’s Knot’ is mostly useless

Resse Witherspoon (cradled by Alessandro Nivolo) is one of the better parts of the West Memphis Three docudrama "Devil's Knot." Credit: Image Entertainment
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.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge


Sierra Leone Ebola patient, recovered from family, dies…

An Ebola patient whose family sparked a nationwide hunt when they forcefully removed her from a treatment center and took her to a traditional healer has died.


VIDEO: Cop reassigned as NYPD investigates alleged head…

An officer alleged to have stomped on a Brooklyn man's head last week had his gun taken away and placed on modified duty.


New York Times calls for legalization of pot

The New York Times editorial board on Saturday endorsed a repeal of the federal ban on marijuana, becoming the largest paper in the nation to back the idea.


Two injured after cable snaps on Ohio amusement…

(Reuters) - A cable on a large swing ride at an Ohio amusement park snapped and struck two riders as the swing was in motion,…


Newport Folk Festival: Photo gallery of 35 moments…

As has been the tradition since Bob Dylan plugged in a bajillion years ago, the Newport Folk Festival embraces more musical genres than its name implies.


MKTO: Behind the bromance

MKTO's Malcolm Kelley and Tony Oller talk about the American Dream tour, Demi Lovato and getting turned down by girls.


James Earl Jones and Rose Byrne head to…

Two-time Tony winner James Earl Jones returns to the New York stage next month as an eccentric grandfather in a revival of the 1930s comedy…


Box office: Scarlett Johansson wins battle of brains…

Scarlett Johansson's "Lucy" handily dispatched with Dwayne Johnson's "Hercules" over the weekend.


Yankees looking to trade for Josh Willingham: Report

CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported Sunday the Yankees are interested in Twins outfielder Josh Willingham.


Joe Torre: I'm in Hall of Fame because…

Joe Torre spent 18 years putting together a near Hall of Fame career as a player. But it was the 12 years he spent as…


Yankees GM Brian Cashman breaks down art of…

The action frequently accelerates as the non-waiver trade deadline approaches, as it will on Thursday.

Auto racing

Jeff Gordon captures fifth title at Brickyard 400

Jeff Gordon captures fifth title at Brickyard 400


This Week In Health: Friends share similar DNA,…

Friends share similar DNA, study finds Location: U.S. Study subjects: Nearly 2,000 people Results: When it comes to our social networks, it seems that birds of…


Are liberal arts colleges turning away from the…

Bryn Mawr College, a small women's college located just outside of Philadelphia, announced last week that it would be making standardized tests like the SAT…


Recent grads discover school superintendent plagiarized parts of…

  Two recent high school graduates made a surprising discovery about the commencement speech their school superintendent delivered at their graduation: portions of it was copied…


Feeling stuck? Get out of the entry-level job…

Television and movies may be littered with 20-something characters who seem directionless when it comes to their careers, but author Mary Traina says she finds…