Devil’s Knot is a procedural creeper

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Directed by Atom Egoyan. Starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth. Rated 14A.

A triple murder from 1993 gets feature treatment in Atom Egoyan’s intriguing, if ultimately frustrating, take on overly familiar material. The real-life crime, with oddball teenagers targeted by Arkansas police after a trio of eight-year-olds were found dead in a grungy, Bible-ridden part of the South, has already engendered three Paradise Lost documentaries, the magisterial West of Memphis, and numerous articles and books, including reporter Mara Leveritt’s Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three.

The last-named inspired this oddly anonymous effort, in which (a very pregnant) Reese Witherspoon plays Pam Hobbs, hard-working mother of one of the dead boys. With a screenplay by horror writers Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson, this Knot fails to mention that Pam’s husband, Terry (Alessandro Nivola), didn’t father her children, but there’s definitely something off about the guy. Still, like everyone else in their white, working-class community, Terry’s happy to blame troubled goth kid Damien Echols, dorky sidekick Jason Baldwin, and the mentally challenged Jessie Misskelley.

James Hamrick, Seth Meriwether, and Kristopher Higgins truly resemble the infamous trio, whom pea-brained “experts” declared vicious satanic cultists. And the Georgia-shot movie’s impressive verisimilitude, with Egoyan regular Paul Sarossy serving up eerily beautiful shots of nature, fits with the overbearing sense of dread, as underlined by Mychael Danna’s almost parodistically creepy score. But the quasi-horrific vibe doesn’t sit well with the procedural tone of long sequences centring on private investigator Ron Lax, played manfully by Colin Firth—presumably because Matthew McConaughey wasn’t available. (The real-life PI died after the film was finished.)

Scenes putting the cool Lax and volatile Pam Hobbs together are probably intended to unify the various threads, but they’re crammed with expository insights that seem beyond her character’s imagination and don’t illuminate his. End titles explain what subsequently happened, but not why this movie was made.

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A. MacInnis
It's one of those movies that I simultaneously need to see and am pretty sure I won't be impressed by. But I've read the book and I've followed the case and I have some remaining interest in Egoyan, so...

Fun Colin Firth anecdote: when I was working in the Maple Ridge Rogers Video as resident movie geek, circa 1990, Mr. Firth, then relatively unknown, came in to rent a movie. At that point, he was living with Meg Tilly somewhere outside town. I don't recall what the video was, but I entered his information in the computer, squinted at him, tried to recall the one film of his I'd seen at that point (A Month in the Country), and said, "umm, there's a British actor named Colin Firth." He glanced around, not seeming very used to being recognized out here in the boondocks, and said, in a British accent, "Oh, really...?" He then quickly left with his movie, and never rented anything else at that store...!
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