Film Review: Devil’s Knot

film review devils knot

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Western world found itself gripped by a moral panic concerning the threat of Satanism.

On this side of the Atlantic, the most famous incident occurred in 1991 when children on Scotland’s Orkney Islands were taken away from their parents, who the local council wrongly, and rather bizarrely, believed were involving the children in Satanic rituals. No proof was ever found to support the allegations; the wrongly accused parents were simply victims of a maelstrom created by irresponsible tabloid hacks desperate for a juicy headline.

In the US, the phony Satanism scare was widespread and the main target was the then popular Heavy Metal musical genre. The British metal band Judas Priest famously found themselves in a US court, charged with causing a teenager to commit suicide when one of their records was found in the young man’s possession.

Devil’s Knot dramatizes the most famous case of the Satanic scare era, that of the West Memphis Three. In 1993, three young boys were abducted and brutally murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas.

On the night of the killing, an African-American man entered a local fast food restaurant covered in blood and proceeded to clean himself in the restaurant washroom. The manager called the police, who seemed disinterested in following this lead. Four days after the bodies were found, two local drug addicts suspiciously left West Memphis for California, where they were arrested and subjected to a lie detector test, which they both failed. One of the men admitted that he might have carried out the murder while in a drug-induced haze.

Despite such leads, the West Memphis police instead turned their attention to three local teenage boys, Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols. The three had criminal records for minor offences but it was their love of Heavy Metal and occult imagery that made them targets, despite no evidence to connect them to the crime beyond the testimony of a young boy who years later would admit lying to the police.

Director Atom Egoyan focuses on the efforts of Ron Lax (Colin Firth), a local private investigator convinced of the three suspects’ innocence. Reese Witherspoon plays Pamela Hobbs, the mother of one of the victims. As the trial progresses, Hobbs comes around to Lax’s thinking and begins to suspect her own husband (Alessandro Nivola) of killing his stepson.
With critically lauded films like Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, Egoyan was once the toast of the Canadian independent film scene. Recently, however, he’s been producing a series of tepid dramas that feel like run of the mill TV movies. Devil’s Knot continues this trend.

By dealing with a real-life subject, Egoyan is hindered in terms of how far he can push the dramatic potential of the story without finding himself on the wrong end of a defamation suit.

As such, Devil’s Knot plays out in uninspired fashion and never sucks you into its story. Several documentaries have been made on this subject (Paradise Lost, West of Memphis) and I’d suggest checking them out over this.

Reviewed by Eric Hillis