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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 12.12.13] thriller drama biography

For over a decade Atom Egoyan's name was synonymous with quality. A bit of Canadian film royalty and well respected in arthouse film circles, Egoyan was known for risqué, emotionally charged dramas (not to mention launching Sarah Polley into the world of adult filmmaking). Things started to get a little rocky with Adoration before hitting bottom with 2009's release of Chloe which was widely panned for its camp and melodrama. It seemed that Devil's Knot could get the director out of his slump. A fantastic cast including award winners Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, and a story that, though not necessarily in need of a dramatic adaptation, features enough material to drive dozens of thrillers (there's at least one more on the way), had good potential for an Egoyan win but alas, Devil's Knot misses the mark completely.

Derived from Mara Leveritt's book of the same title on the tragedy of the West Memphis Three (WM3), Devil's Knot attempts to tell the story of the events surrounding the disappearance of three boys in the Robin Hood Hills. Or at least I think that's what the movie's about. Truth is that writers Scott Derrickson (of Sinister fame) and Paul Harris Boardman don't know what story they're telling. It begins with three missing boys, shifts to introduce the accused and then settles to focus on Ron Lax (Colin Firth), the investigator who steps in to provide his services. Except even Lax's character is sidelined for the procedural elements of the story but they too feel lacking in focus and depth. Lax connects the accused with the victims but the ties are so disjointed that it feels like watching a bastardized version of a six hour miniseries.

At this point it's safe to assume that most people have passing knowledge about the WM3 and the events and circumstances surrounding their incarceration but Devil's Knot is constantly at odds, sometimes playing like the audience is aware of the intimate details of the case while at others omitting or playing loosely with factual information that it feels like a slap in the face to those who do know what is going on. It's not a matter of expectation but rather one of sloppy writing, and even sloppier editing.

Colin Firth is great at understated performances but here he's bombastic, preaching to everyone who will listen (and even some who won't) about why he's helping out three men he thinks are being wrongly convicted and occasionally lambasting the lawyers defending, or better yet attempting to defend, the WM3. Reese Witherspoon's performance is equally melodramatic and for some bizarre reason the movie constantly focuses on her though her character is no more important than any of the other parents affected by the tragedy. The single highlight is Kevin Durand who gives a pretty spot on interpretation of John Mark Byers though we only ever see him in the background or in passing.

Devil's Knot is terrible. The script is sprawling and lacks central focus (particularly a central character who the audience can follow through the unfolding events), the acting is hugely disappointing, particularly considering the calibre of the talent involved, and to make matters worse Egoyan and regular cinematographer Paul Sarossy, a talented DoP with a long line of excellent credits to his name, make this look like a made-for TV movie. It's uninteresting, clunky and adds nothing to the growing canon of WM3 material. Do yourself a favour and stick to the documentaries.

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