On May 5, 1993, three eight-year-old boys went for a bike ride from which they would never return. Later, their bodies were found bound, beaten, and naked in a river. After a search and a trial, three teenagers were charged with the murders, despite a lack of actual evidence. This has been a well-documented case, with many media outlets covering it and even a book being written about it. It’s that book, Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three, which served as the basis for this film, which shortens the title just to Devil’s Knot.
In essence, the film is led by two people. The first is Pamela Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), who is the mother of one of the dead boys. She’s our emotional center, and the person who acts as the surrogate to allow us to see the community’s reaction to the deaths. This part of the story isn’t particularly effective. Save for one really touching scene which involves a trip to her son’s classroom, she mostly just sits there and looks sad. That’s understandable, but it doesn’t do a whole lot for the film or for its audience.
Pamela plays second fiddle to Ron Lax (Colin Firth), who plays a private investigator determined to get to the bottom of this case. Why? He doesn’t know whether or not the teenagers accused of the killing, but he knows that he doesn’t want to see three more dead bodies because of the case. Why? The film sometimes hints at there being more to it than that, but that’s as far as it goes with his character. He’s there to get to the bottom of the investigation, not have a real character.
In a lot of ways, there aren’t any real characters in the film, even with many of them being based on real-world people. There isn’t any complexity or depth to any of them. They’re all vessels designed for a specific purpose. Almost all of the film is comprised of exposition or supposition. And it all relates to this case, which becomes more important than anyone else. The film wants to create further doubt when it comes to the eventual outcome of the case, and it’s not concerned about anything else.
To be fair, that’s something that Devil’s Knot does really well. Telling the “real” story, which involves terrible police work and a targeted approach in “finding” the “murderers,” is intriguing. It should work well as a movie. There isn’t any reason for it to not. But when the central focus is just on telling the story of the case, not the people involved in it, it loses any sense of human interest. You can’t care about anyone involved and at that point intrigue levels begin to fade.
I mean, sure, it really sucks that three teenagers were potentially wrongfully charged with murders just because some people higher up in the world decided to target them. They’re painted as the real victims, and if they didn’t do it, then that’s a fair portrayal. But we barely get to know them. Only one of them actually gets more than a few forgettable lines, and I couldn’t even tell you which one that is. Whichever one had long hair and smoked. Damien, perhaps? This is how involving the film is; I can’t even tell you with certainty the name of one of its primary characters.
I feel like Devil’s Knot would have worked better as a documentary, because that’s what it feels like it wants to be. It wants to add doubt to a real-world case that was already full of exactly that. And it succeeds. But it does so at the expense of a compelling narrative and characters. This is much less of a problem with a documentary, which could lay out the facts and doubt without the expectations that come with a narrative film.
There have been a few documentaries about the case, actually. The most prominent of which is the Paradise Lost trilogy — yes, trilogy — which started in 1996 and concluded in 2011. That much coverage has been made of this, and with much more depth. There have been other books written, television specials aired, and a significant amount of coverage given. Do we really need this film, which scratches the surface and doesn’t provide much else that hasn’t already been covered? The answer, unfortunately, is no.
Devil’s Knot doesn’t suffer from bad acting. Alongside dependable leads in Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth, the supporting cast is made up of veteran actors who revel in smaller roles. Actors like Elias Koteas — who has one scene, if I remember correctly — Alessandro Nivola, Bruce Greenwood, and Amy Ryan are all great in the few scenes they get. Dane DeHaan is also in this, so if you like him and want to see him “good,” you might want to see this film just for the couple of scenes he gets.
I struggle to find a reason to recommend Devil’s Knot. Anyone interested in this case will have already watched some of the documentaries, while those who haven’t heard of it will see this and not get the full picture. Instead, they’ll be treated to a narrative and characters who exist not to be interesting or compelling, but to act as vessels through which the film can add doubt to a not-at-all clear-cut case. The story is interesting, but the way it was told here just doesn’t work.