Devil's Knot DVD Review
Written by Steve Pattee
DVD released by Image Entertainment
Directed by Atom Egoyan
Written by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson, based on the book by Mara Leveritt
2013, Region 1 (NTSC), 114 minutes, Not Rated
DVD released on June 10th, 2014
Colin Firth as Ron Lax
Reese Witherspoon as Pam Hobbs
Dane Dehaan as Chris Morgan
Mirelle Enos as Vicki Hutcheson
Bruce Greenwood as Judge Burnett
Elias Koteas as Jerry Driver
Stephen Moyer as John Fogleman
Alessandro Nivola as Terry Hobbs
Amy Ryan as Margaret Lax
James Hamrick as Damien Echols
Seth Meriwether as Jason Baldwin
Kris Higgins as Jessie Misskelley
I can't remember when exactly I first saw Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, but I do know that is the film that turned me on to the documentary genre. Tragic and frustrating, Paradise Lost tells the story of three teens – Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin – accused, tried, and convicted of the brutal murder of three little boys – Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers. What makes the whole thing maddening is there was virtually no evidence that pointed to the guilt of the youths charged other than they wore black, were social outcasts, and Echols was an admitted Wiccan – add all that together and you clearly get a Satanic cult. Known as the West Memphis Three, Baldwin and Misskelley received life imprisonment where Echols got the death penalty. Having served time since 1994, the trio was finally released in 2011 after entering Alford pleas (which basically allowed them to declare they are innocent while at the same time acknowledging that there was enough evidence to convict them). Watching the documentary, I was baffled how seemingly everyone involved in the prosecution of these teens was so blind to the injustice, from the investigating officers right up to the presiding judge. The entire trial was a miscarriage of justice and left a trail of victims in its wake, not including the tragic loss of the three dead boys. It was nothing more than a witch hunt.
Based on the terrific book of the same name by Mara Leveritt, Devil's Knot tries to tell the story of this fascinating case, but unfortunately falls a little short on execution. The film is told from two points of view; one from Pam Hobbs, the mother of victim Stevie Branch, and the other from Ron Lax, the private investigator working for the defense. Reese Witherspoon is wonderful as Hobbs, believable as woman desperately trying to hold things together in what is no doubt the worst time in her life. And Colin Firth is equally impressive as Lax, a man who sees the gaping holes in the prosecution's case and does everything he can to keep the suspects from going to prison, but to no avail.
In general, the performances all around are solid, but the problem lies with the script. Instead of concentrating on one aspect of the story, be it the case, the investigation, the parents, the teens charged, etc., it tries to cover a little bit of everything and it ends up being too much. I get what the filmmakers were trying to do in that they weren't willing to out-and-out blame one person for this heinous crime and that's fine, but so much is thrown at the wall the film becomes JFK-like in its conspiracies and potential suspects. And here's the pisser: everything that they do throw at the wall is accurate, but the context is lost because the film is trying to do too much in too little time. I've seen all the documentaries (Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, West of Memphis, and numerous shows over the years) and read whatever I could find on the case (including Leveritt's Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three), so I could easily keep up. However, I could only imagine what someone not so familiar with the case might think. There's a frustrating lack of focus.
In addition, I find it interesting that Devil's Knot barely touches upon any of the other parents of the victims – I don't think I even saw Michael Moore's parents. For those of you who have seen the documentaries and are going in looking for the spellbinding John Mark Byers, you will be sorely disappointed. He's barely in it. Although, I did see a nod to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (the directors of the Paradise Lost documentaries), so kudos to the filmmakers for that.
All this might add up to the assumption that I didn't like the film, but that's not the case at all. Even though I can't hide my disappointment, I rather enjoyed it because I know enough about the story that I could fill in the blanks and the performances of Witherspoon and Firth deliver equal amounts of rage and sympathy from both sides of the case. I just wish they had more to work with, or if the movie had focused entirely on one of their sides, it doesn't matter which. I can understand wanting to tell the whole story, but you can't tell the entire tale of something almost 15 years in the making in just under two hours. I will give the filmmakers credit, though, for not embellishing any part of the story (that I could tell). In a case like this, you don't need to. The truth is more than enough to be almost unbelievable. And for as many punches they pulled while telling this tragic tale, I will tip my fedora to them for not shying away from the portrayal of the finding of the bodies of the three young boys. That scene is damning.
For those that have followed the West Memphis Three case religiously, you are going to be a little let down with Devil's Knot because it has the pieces – great leads, compelling story – to make an amazing movie, but it lacks the necessary punch to make it memorable. If you are one that is unfamiliar with what happened in Arkansas in 1993 and 1994, you're going to want to watch the Paradise Lost documentaries first (you should anyway), and maybe even West of Memphis, before you check this one out. Doing so will help answer some of the questions that Devil's Knot will no doubt leave you with.
Video and Audio:
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Devil's Knot's picture is crisp, clear, and detailed. Colors are strong and natural and I did not see any blemishes or noise.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is equally impressive and dialogue is never drowned out by effects or score.
- The Making of Devil's Knot
- Getting Into Character: The Cast of Devil's Knot
- Deleted Scenes
Coming in at just under seven minutes, "The Making of Devil's Knot" is your standard EPK, featuring interviews with many of the actors as well as Devil's Knot author Leveritt.
"Getting Into Character: The Cast of Devil's Knot" runs about eight minutes and it brings to light how some of the actors prepared for their roles (some of which going so far as meeting the real-life person of who they played.
While there are only a few deleted scenes, they are well worth watching for fans of the Paradise Lost documentaries to catch a cameo of co-director Joe Berlinger.
It's unfortunate that there is not a commentary for Devil's Knot. This is a film that screams for one, and I would have loved to hear author Mara Leveritt's thoughts on the movie.