A Familiar Story, by Tyler Smith
Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot benefits from a very intriguing and engaging story. It is a film about the mob mentality and how integrity and commitment to the truth often gets tossed aside in times of grief and frustration. We watch the film with a deep anger at the total miscarriage of justice that we’ve just witnessed, wishing that there was something we could do about it. The film has all of this going for it.
Unfortunately, this has also been captured by three respected documentaries on this exact subject matter, making a conventional dramatization seem not merely irrelevant, but somehow sensationalistic; maybe even exploitative. It’s as if somebody watched the Paradise Lost documentary series and said, “Yes, this is an interesting story, but it’s too long, and can we please get some movie stars in there?”
That’s not to say that the film isn’t interesting on its own. It is very well acted, with Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth turning in earnest and committed performances, and it is particularly well shot. As the story of three young boys brutally murdered and the resulting chaos begins to unfold, the camera slowly glides through and beyond the proceedings. In a way, it feels like we’re all just rubberneckers, slowing down to witness a horrible accident on the side of the road, but never really able to get the whole picture of what happened. It’s a very counterintuitive tone to strike with a movie like this; one that asks us why we’re so interested in the suffering of others.
A good deal of this can be attributed to Atom Egoyan’s ability to capture a specific tone of gossip and suspicion. It is reminiscent- though far from the equal- of his brilliant film The Sweet Hereafter, which also featured a small town in mourning. As previously-unheard evidence comes to light, it would appear that everyone is a suspect, and we find ourselves losing trust not just in the characters on screen, but in our own judgment. We see a grief-stricken father and feel for him, only to discover that some of his DNA was found at the crime scene. By the end, we’re fairly certain that the young men accused didn’t commit the crime, but not much beyond that.
We’re left wanting more, but only in the knowledge that there is indeed much more to the story. The crusading lawyers and investigators that took up the cause of the convicted young men and eventually get them released certainly do deserve their own movie, as do the young men themselves. But that story isn’t shown to us, merely explained with title cards at the end of the film. It winds up being quite unsatisfying, like we’re only being told half the story, which leads me once again to the question of why anybody thought Devil’s Knot was necessary when there are three very in-depth and comprehensive documentaries in existence about this story.
Perhaps if the film brought something new to this- maybe using a well known case as an analogy to something current, as Arthur Miller did with The Crucible– I wouldn’t have a problem with the fact that it was made. But it’s told in a very straightforward way; nothing particularly distinguishing about it. We learn nothing new and we feel nothing new.
And while everything is certainly approached in a somber and respectful way, part of me wishes that Egoyan had gone the Oliver Stone route, bombarding us with alternate theories and palpable outrage as he did in JFK. That film required something of us and made us feel like we’re all being far too trusting in those with power. Devil’s Knot just makes us shake our heads and think, “Oh, that’s a shame.” We then go on with our lives, having not been particularly touched or moved. And if there is one thing you should never come away feeling when hearing the story of the West Memphis Three, it’s apathy.