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‘Devil’s Knot’: West Memphis Three story told again, pointlessly

Seth Meriwether (left) James Hamrick play teen murder suspects JasBaldwDamien Echols (with BrandCarroll right) “Devil’s Knot.”  |  RLJ/Image

Seth Meriwether (left) and James Hamrick play teen murder suspects Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols (with Brandon Carroll, right) in “Devil’s Knot.” | RLJ/Image Entertainment

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Pam Hobbs Reese Witherspoon

Ron Lax Colin Firth

Chris Moran Dane DeHaan

Vicki Hutcherson Mireille Enos

RLJ/Image Entertainment presents a film directed by Atom Egoyan and written by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson, based on the book “Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three,” by Mara Leveritt. Running time: 115 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at AMC Streets of Woodfield and available on demand.

Updated: June 10, 2014 6:07AM

Even after four documentaries and some first-rate print journalism, we still have more questions than answers about the horrifying murders of three little boys in West Memphis, Ark., in 1993.

We know three teenagers were arrested, charged with the murders and found guilty. We know the case of the “West Memphis Three” became one of the most documented and publicized crime stories in American history. We know the three men were finally let free in 2011, after serving more than 18 years from crimes they didn’t commit.

But we still don’t know who killed those three children.

Atom Egoyan’s “Devil’s Knot” is a respectful and well-intentioned fictionalization of the case that rarely strays from the documented events of the early 1990s and then rushes to tell us through end title cards everything that happened in the years since then. Given how much is already out there about the trial of the West Memphis Three, one is left wondering why the greatly gifted and innovative Mr. Egoyan (“The Sweet Hereafter,” “Exotica”) would even make such a straightforward, at times ponderous film, lacking in any real new insight, too timid to offer any theories as to what might have happened. (Although we probably should be grateful Oliver Stone didn’t tackle this material.)

Working from the 2002 book of the same title by the Arkansas Times journalist Mara Leveritt (adapted by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson), Egoyan gives us an idyllic, close-knit, sun-dappled West Memphis, where children come running out of school and into the arms of their parents.

A slightly glammed-down Reese Witherspoon convincingly plays Pam Hobbs, a hardworking waitress and doting mother whose world is turned upside-down when her 8-year-old son Stevie and two of his friends go missing after a late-afternoon bicycle ride. (Pam looks out the kitchen window as her boy pedals away, and as we see Stevie disappearing from view, we know she’s never going to see him again because the score pounds that home and also there’s no other reason for that shot than to start the preliminary tugging on our heartstrings.)

In rapid fashion, “Devil’s Knot” lays out the horrific details of the case and then begins presenting suspects and introducing the courtroom players.

The naked, abused and trussed-up bodies of the three boys are recovered from the woods near their homes. Pam crumples to the ground in a heap. Pam’s second husband, Terry Hobbs (Alessandro Nivola), Stevie’s stepfather, offers as much comfort as he can, but there’s something slightly off about this guy.

With rumors of a Satanic cult swirling through the town, the investigation centers on three troubled teenage boys: Jessie Misskelly, Jason Baldwin and the alleged mastermind, Damien Echols. Misskelly, a minor, is questioned by police for 12 hours and gives a confession (which he later recants).

There’s also the bizarre eyewitness account from a little boy who claimed to have witnessed the murders. The boy’s mother is Vicki Hutcheson (Mireille Enos), who had been accused of stealing money from her boss. Apparently trying to curry favor with investigators, Vicki befriends the suspects before they’re arrested, decorating her home with Satanic touches and affecting a goth look before inviting them over. And then her son just happens to have witnessed the crimes and delivers a clearly coached account of events.

Colin Firth gives one of the few awkward performances of his career as Ronald Lax, a Southern gentleman private investigator who’s convinced the accused had nothing to do with the crimes. “Devil’s Knot” wastes time on Lax’s personal back story, including a completely unnecessary scene with his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and multiple conversations Lax has with a sympathetic waitress as he explains how he won’t stand for this miscarriage of justice.

The trial scenes are shot in an unimaginative style reminiscent of a hundred TV courtroom dramas. Bruce Greenwood plays the presiding judge as a simpleton who allows the prosecution miles of leeway while dismissing every legitimate argument offered by the defense. Even so, there’s so much reasonable doubt, even Pam Hobbs begins to doubt the prosecution.

There’s so much going on here. Dane DeHaan does a chilling turn as Chris Morgan, another possible suspect who makes an insane non-confession of a confession. We learn about the mysterious man who stumbled into a restaurant on the night of the crime, covered in blood and mud, only to disappear forever. Pam begins to wonder if her own husband was somehow involved.

All of these twists and turns have been better explained in the documentaries about the West Memphis Three. Despite the fine performance by Witherspoon and a number of the supporting players, “Devil’s Knot” comes across as a cinematic, slightly dramatized Cliffs Notes edition of a story that’s been told often, and almost always more effectively, in other formats.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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