Based on a true story, this is a film about the investigation into the murder of three boys in a small Arkansas town. Luckily the town has no shortage of shady-looking characters to arouse our suspicions.
Reese Witherspoon plays the mother of one of the boys, and Colin Firth takes on the role of a private investigator, determined to get a fair trial for the three main suspects; local teenagers involved in the occult.
Courtroom dramas are very hard to get right. It’s a situation where it’s extremely challenging to get suspense and, well, drama, without falling back on old clichés. However The Devil’s Knot is remarkable for that fact that it is both cliché-ridden to the extreme and completely devoid of suspense. Even more disappointing, then, that this chose to market itself as a psychological thriller rather than a dramatically vacuous recounting of a legal case.
When dealing with a real life murder case, sensitivity is required. If you meddle with the true events to make a more interesting film, you risk upsetting fans of the real-life murder. But if you don’t want to alter events for the film, and the real events don’t make a compelling screen play, don’t make it into a film. It’s not compulsory that every real life event has to be made into a film, y’know.
I don’t know anything about the case this film is based on, but I assume it’s very accurate, as they certainly haven’t made decisions with the quality of the film in mind. One such example is the way Colin Firth, who is the film’s central character, has no role in the court. As a private investigator volunteering to find information to help the defence team, he’s excluded from all the main action in the courtroom, limited to reaction shots, amongst the other spectators.
The are some good performances. Firth in particular, donning an Arkansas drawl, and also Neil Patrick Harris in his small but transformative role as a defence attorney. I couldn’t take Witherspoon’s performance seriously, but I don’t think that was her fault. She just reminded me of this woman. James Hamrick plays the main suspect, Damien, who, with his lank black hair and villainous air, feels like a low key Loki.
The whole film reminded me of the documentary Cropsy, about a child murderer in New York, in both content and approach to giving the audience information. The problem is, we have different expectations of a film and a documentary, so when a film is interested in little more than depicting events, this is a major weakness.
Director Atom Egoyan has taken one of the most emotive topics in the world and make it cold and detached. It tries fleetingly to create the pretence that it’s about something; perhaps about the way we judge people different from ourselves, or flaws in the legal process; but this is little more than an attempt to mask how creatively uninspired this is.