Not Even Witherspoon, Firth Can Untangle ‘Devil’s Knot’

by Brett Steinbrink on June 24, 2014

in Blu-ray/DVD Reviews,Reviews

[Minor Rock Fist Down]

In the same way that the judge in Devil’s Knot (Available now on Blu-Ray and DVD) dismisses the inconsistent testimony of one young man accused of murder, its easy to dismiss Devil’s Knot for it’s huge number of inconsistencies and jumps in logic that disallow the viewer to get wrapped up in what is truly a compelling and gruesome narrative.

Directed by Atom Egoyan (Adoration, Where the Truth Lies), Devil’s Knot is based on the true story of the murder of three young boys from West Memphis, AR in 1993.  Reese Witherspoon stars as Pam Hobbs, the mother of one of the victims who struggles to make peace out of the fact that her son is dead.

When three teenage boys with interests in heavy metal music and the occult are outed as suspects in the murders, private investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth) urges the law office he works for to take their case, and proceeds to attempt to prove their innocence.  From there, the film takes us through all the lies and deceits of random people within the town trying to help frame the young men because of their weird beliefs, and in the end, it’s revealed the real killer was never found.

Despite being anchored by Firth and Witherspoon, their capable performances can’t save a screenplay that is at best unorganized, and at worst entirely dysfunctional.  The problem here isn’t the story itself, but rather the fact that screenwriters Paul Harris-Boardman and Scott Derrickson have made a mess of the book by Mara Leveritt’s book of the same title.  The film doesn’t actually introduce Firth’s character until about half an hour into the movie.  He was onscreen, but you have no idea who he is because prior to his actual introduction, you see him doing such irrelevant things like bidding $21,000 on an antique desk, and having divorce papers in his car.

There’s even a scene later in the film where he meets with his soon-to-be-ex-wife so she can tell him he’s being investigated by the police department for trying to help the teenagers.  The problem here is indicative of the problems with the whole movie, in that they’re trying to give Firth’s characterization, and then not doing anything with it.  It isn’t actually ever made relevant for any reason that he’s getting divorced, and even when he meets her for lunch there doesn’t seem to be any sort of tension between them.

Additionally, at one point, Witherspoon’s character takes her missing/dead son’s math homework to school, interrupts his teacher in the middle of class, and asks her to grade his homework that hadn’t been handed in.  While maybe a grieving mother might do the same, she’s already a sympathetic character and this scene does nothing but make the viewer feel incredibly awkward, especially when a few of the children come up and group hug her.  It’s just plain weird, and it serves no purpose in advancing the plot of the film.

However, one thing I will give the film is its ability to poke fun at the religious majority screaming bloody murder and pointing to people who disagree with them to blame for an unexplained crime.  Throughout the film you hear lines about how the “satanic” teenagers are out to kill everyone in their crazy blood rituals or whatnot.  It’s easy to see the worst fears of this moral majority being realized on-screen, despite the total misdirection and innocence of the youth.  It brings to mind more storied images of the Salem, Massachusetts witch hunts, Aurhur Miller’s The Crucible, or Joe McCarthy’s ultimately pointless Communist-seeking HUAC of the 1950’s.  It’s a trope we’ve seen rehashed in real life and the creative arts time and again, and yet, it’s still relevant as ever, given recent uproars such as Benghazi or the constant scapegoating of video games or violent media and their effect on society.

Shifting gears, the special features of the DVD and Blu-Ray combo don’t offer much in the way of actual background on the real events of the murders.  There’s your typical “making of” documentary that reveals Egoyan’s initial draw to the script, and the fact that he made several changes to the script … which I am strongly wanting to equate with the disorganized lump of a film he ended up with (no scapegoat here, folks, he flat-out says it!).  There’s also a short featurette on the cast getting into character, mostly with Firth and Witherspoon discussing meeting the real people behind their characters (that is, Lax and Hobbs).  Also included are two pretty irrelevant deleted scenes.  They’re about as irrelevant as some of the scenes that did make the cut, so take that as you will.

The bottom line here is that despite Witherspoon and Firth acting their quite-talented asses off, it’s just not enough to untangle the mess that is Devil’s Knot.

Brett is a recent graduate of the University of Kansas, with dual degrees in Film & Media Studies and History. He enjoys watching sports, playing video games, and watching too many movies/television programs. If you’re looking for someone to quote “Friends” at you, give you a detailed outline of Franco-American foreign relations during the 1790′s, or make a lame pun… he’s probably your go-to guy.

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