Academy Award® winners Colin Firth (The King’s Speech, 2010) and Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line, 2005) lead an all-star cast in this gripping, heart-wrenching true story that shocked the nation. May 5, 1993. West Memphis, Arkansas. 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 (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 an investigator (Firth) reveals that the evidence doesn’t all add up, that the community is forced to face the reality that the true killer might still be out there.
Director Atom Egoyan, whose best work to date is undoubtedly 1997's 'The Sweet Hereafter', tackles the story of the West Memphis Three (and the murders they were accused of) in 'Devil's Knot'. Given Egoyan's past work, one would expect that the director would be able to take this real-life case and provide a moving dramatic version. Sadly, that's never the case here, as 'Devil's Knot' feels like a TV 'movie of the week' and a by-the-numbers presentation of evidence and questions that most viewers will already know about.
The movie puts its primary focus on two people related to the events: Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), who is the mother of one of the young victims, and Ron Lax (Colin Firth), a private investigator who becomes involved with the case because he's anti-death penalty but later suspects that the three boys charged in the crime might very well be innocent. The remaining characters in the film are portrayed by a who's who of cable and TV character actors, most notably Mireille Enos, Bruce Greenwood, Elias Koteas, Steven Moyer, Amy Ryan, and Michael Gladis (to name just a handful). All of the actors are well cast in their roles – most notably Alessandro Nivola as Terry Hobbs and Kevin Durand as John Mark Byers, both fathers (with Hobbs being a stepfather) to one of the victims and both potential suspects to the crime, who not only do a solid job of acting like their real-life counterparts, but bear a remarkable physical resemblance to them.
The film, set in West Memphis, Arkansas (the actual movie was shot in Georgia), begins with the last day in the lives of the three young victims – Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers – who go missing one night and are soon found brutally murdered in a nearby creek bed. The poorly handled police investigation pins the murders on three local teenagers: Damien Echols (James Hamrick), Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether), and Jesse Misskelley (Kristopher Higgins) – blaming the kids' obsession with the occult and satanic rituals as the reason behind the crime. At about the midway point of the movie, the film switches into 'courtroom drama' mode, showing viewers first the trial of Misskelley (who was tried separately), then that of Echols and Baldwin (who were tried together).
There are probably very few who would be interested in 'Devil's Knot' that haven't already seen at least one of the previous documentaries about the case or, at the very least, are aware of the facts. Joe Berlinger has already directed three excellent documentaries on the topic for HBO, while Amy Berg (and producer Peter Jackson) delivered the fantastic West of Memphis documentary, which covers the case from the beginning to unresolved end (when Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelly were released from prison, but not completely exonerated of the murders). There have also been at least a dozen books and probably even more websites devoted to the case. All of this is a detriment to 'Devil's Knot' as a movie, as it really has nothing new to say or offer about the case. It also pales in comparison to the four documentaries that came before it, primarily because those showed the real people telling their real stories (including actual footage from the trials), while 'Devil's Knot' is simply a dramatization of the same events.
Even if one goes into this movie without knowing anything about the case, another problem 'Devil's Knot" has is that the primary characters are simply reactionary instead of active. All viewers get to see Reese Witherspoon do here is fuss and fret about what's happened to her son; and while Colin Firth's character does do some investigating on his own, he's basically only on-hand to show the defense attorneys in the case what they missed, rather than to provide any impact on the trials themselves. Furthermore, anyone that has followed this case through the years knows that the real evidence gathering and revelations occurred after the trials, yet 'Devil's Knot' concludes with them – only offering a movie-ending coda to discuss the fight to free the West Memphis Three from prison and to talk about some of the evidence that pointed to other persons that we see in the movie.
Finally, the convicted teens themselves are secondary characters in a movie that should really focus on them. Aside from one brief jailhouse visit to Echols cell, Lax has no contact with the convicted whatsoever, and the movie fails to provide the kind of outrage that one should feel over the persecution of these young men. They're almost left as an afterthought in their own story.
Because almost everything here has been presented before in better material, I can't be that enthusiastic about 'Devil's Knot'. It's the kind of movie that would have had an impact had it been released 15 years ago, but seems like merely a rehashing of facts given all that's been shown and published about this case since then. There's nothing particularly wrong with the performances here (although Egoyan's film does look too much like something 'shot on the cheap' for cable TV), but there's nothing that really stands out, either. This is a movie that followers of the case will want to check out, but not something they'll want to add to their collection.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Devil's Knot' arrives on Blu-ray in Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. The standard Elite keepcase houses the dual-layer DVD on the inside left and the single-layer 25GB Blu-ray on the inside right. A slipcover matching the artwork of the keepcase slick slides overtop. Both the Blu-ray and the DVD are front-loaded with trailers for Blood, The Numbers Station, and The Double. The main menu for both discs consists of a montage of footage from the movie with menu selections running across the bottom of the screen.
The Blu-ray of 'Devil's Knot' has been encoded for Region A only.
'Devil's Knot' was shot digitally on Arri Alexa equipment, providing for a detailed – if not always spectacular – transfer to Blu-ray. As with many titles shot in the digital format, outdoor footage comes off with much more 'pop' than some of the indoor/set moments, which often look a bit softer. Colors are just ever-so-slightly drained here, although it's hard to say whether that's an intentional move by the cinematographer or just a result of shooting with the Arri Alexa. Black levels and shadow delimitation are, for the most part, solid. Although I was underwhelmed with most of the cinematography of the movie itself, there's no real evident issues with the transfer, which is free from any noticeable banding, aliasing or the like.
Much like the video, the audio track here is solid, without providing much in the realm of noticeable directionality or a lot of low frequency effects (LFE). The only audio option is an English DTS Master Audio 5.1 track, which is actually more than enough for this dialogue heavy film. One annoying thing I did notice about the audio is that most (and, indeed, perhaps all) of the spoken word comes from the front center speaker, with no movement to the left or right, regardless of how many characters are in a conversation or their location on screen. The rear speakers are used throughout, but rarely noticeable – usually just used to amp up some music or sound already coming from the front, and almost never for directionality or to provide a more immersive experience. Again, though, like the video, the audio here is more a reflection of the events of the film itself, rather than a problem with the track. This is very much a 'talking heads' movie for the most part, and the audio reflects that.
In addition to the lossless 5.1 track, subtitles are offered in English SDH and Spanish.
The biggest problem 'Devil's Knot' has going against it is that – thanks to the four excellent documentaries on the case that proceeded it – it has nothing new or revealing to add. The fact that Atom Egoyan's movie unfolds like a made-for-television film doesn't help matters much, either. Unless you're brand-new to these events, this flick isn't going to add much to what you already know. Rent it.