Twenty years after the gruesome murder of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark., the crime remains unsolved. The killings and the ensuing miscarriage of justice against three accused teens have hardly gone unexplored, becoming a cause célèbre and the subject of news reports, books and no less than four documentaries.
Now add to that list "Devil's Knot," the curiously muted narrative feature directed by Atom Egoyan and starring Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon.
Egoyan, who has never shied away from the lurid aspects of lost innocence, takes a measured approach that successfully avoids sensationalism. But the film's restraint verges on blankness; a mood of desolation builds in this story of the West Memphis Three, but not an involving drama.
A key problem is that screenwriters Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson, working from a book by journalist Mara Leveritt, place whole passages of exposition in the mouths of characters, especially a team of private investigators headed by Ron Lax (Firth).
The well-to-do Lax is a recessive hero, constitutionally sad, as though oppressed by the weight of injustice. He offers his pro bono services to defense attorneys not because he believes the teens are innocent but because he can't tolerate the idea of a death-penalty case based on such meager evidence — much of it revolving around the accused's interest in the occult.
As Pam Hobbs, mother of one of the victims, Witherspoon is relatively unburdened by stilted dialogue and convincingly portrays a tough, working-class woman facing unfathomable grief. "Devil's Knot" begins with a playful interaction between Pam and her son just before his fateful bike ride. It's the film's most natural exchange, and its most haunting.
"Devil's Knot." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. At AMC Burbank 16. Also on VOD.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times