Memphis, 1993: the bodies of three boys are discovered in the woods. They are bound and mutilated. The brutality and media coverage forced a flawed trial that convicted three teenagers, partly because one of them listened to Metallica and had an interest in the occult. Several award-winning documentaries were made, celebrities campaigned for the teenagers’ release. Director Atom Egoyan retells the true story in Devil’s Knot.
The film meanders through several phases. First, a quiet, ominous gaze at small-town life in Tennessee: Reese Witherspoon as Pam Hobbs, the mother of one of the victims, picks up her son from school. There are eerie shots of the dark woods where the boys were found, then the film shifts its focus to the trial, to the courtroom and to derivative scenes of Colin Firth as PI Ron Lax working through the unconvincing evidence.
Deliberately or not, the film is tense with inconsistencies. Shocking scenes of officers lifting the naked bodies of the children from a river are set against slow-burning sylvan scenes. Naturalistic acting by Witherspoon and the town’s residents is set against dramatic, expressive performances from Firth and the legal team. Egoyan tries to show the way that grief affects the family and tries to tell the story of the case and evidence – these two aims are at odds.
Witnessing the tower of evidence collapse under Firth’s scrutiny undeniably casts the police, the judge and the town’s residents in a really unfavourable light. Granted, Egoyan makes sure to show that they are under pressure, but this stems from a community of southern US stereotypes – beer-in-hand, spectacular mullets and moustaches – who are consumed by religious zeal and intense fear of Satan and devil worshipping. They equate listening to heavy metal music with cannibalism and murder. What makes the prosecution’s case seem so shameful is the way that contemplative Firth is presented as a hero, the defender of the defenceless teens who face the death penalty. “What if they did it?” his secretary asks. “Even if they did, I think three dead kids is enough.”
Firth and Witherspoon are as strong as ever and the film, infused with a sense of foreboding by slow camera pans and a creepy score by Mychael Danna, is brilliantly engrossing throughout. The audience adopts the role of the jury as we consider the facts and the fiction. But Egoyan is very much acting for the defence.
Devil’s Knot is released nationwide on 13th June 2014.
Watch the trailer for Devil’s Knot here: