In 2011, three young men convicted of the 1993 murder of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark., were released after new DNA evidence called their guilt into question.
Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr., and Jason Baldwin, who have come to be known as the West Memphis Three, already had served more than 18 years in prison. They entered a plea deal in lieu of a retrial and were set free on condition they accept an additional 10-year suspended sentence.
The subject of innumerable books and films, including two HBO documentaries, the case has become synonymous with sloppy police work and overzealous prosecution, as well as the destructive impact of collective hysteria on the proper administration of the law.
Acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan (Exotica) joins the West Memphis Three club with the release of The Devil's Knot, an exhaustively researched - and, quite frankly, very exhausting - adaptation of journalist Mara Leveritt's book.
Stocked with a terrific A-list cast, including Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth, Mireille Enos, Bruce Greenwood, Stephen Moyer, Elias Koteas, Amy Ryan, and Alessandro Nivola, The Devil's Knot revisits the case with methodical, if often plodding, precision and attention to detail. It opens with the boys' disappearance, the grisly discovery of their bound and mutilated bodies, and the Satanic panic that led an entire community to prejudge the suspects, teenage heavy-metal music fans, as members of a cult of devil worshipers.
Moyers (True Blood) is brilliant as the slick prosecutor who feeds the jurors' prejudices and passions while pretending to appeal to their sense of justice. Firth delivers a solid performance as an investigator convinced the three teens are innocent, while Witherspoon (Walk the Line) channels her Oscar-winning June Carter-Cash accent as a victim's mother.
The Devil's Knot isn't a bad film. It's just not a very good one. It's certainly not a film one would expect from Egoyan, who has visited similar ground in The Sweet Hereafter, a sublime chamber piece about the effect the deaths of a busload of children has on a small community. A shrewd student of ethics and the law, Egoyan also explored important themes in Felicia's Journey, about a sexual predator fixated on a teenage girl.
The writer-director has the talent to dig deep and lay bare the assumptions behind our idea of justice and our notions of right and wrong. In The Devil's Knot, he settles for an encyclopedic, if skin-deep, presentation.
The Devil's Knot ** (out of four stars)
Directed by Atom Egoyan. With Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth, Mireille Enos, Stephen Moyer, Amy Ryan, Alessandro Nivola. Distributed by Image Entertainment.
Running time: 1 hour, 54 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (violence, disturbing images, profanity, nudity, smoking).
Playing at: AMC Loews Cherry Hill 24