DEVIL’S KNOT. Starring Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Allessandro Nivola, Directed by Atom Egoyan. Rated M (Mature themes, Crime scene images and coarse language). 115 minutes.
Based on the true story.
In 1993, three very young boys were assaulted and murdered in woods at the edge of the city of Memphis, Arkansas. There was a lot of talk about devil-worship, about Satanism and rituals, one of the accused of having an interest in these themes and a library with background books. The police were eager to close the case, focusing on three young men who were accused, neglecting other evidence. There were strong feelings in the city.
Veteran Canadian director, Atom Egoyan, makes his first American film, with a strong interest in the case, most especially in those involved in the defence. The screenplay has been written by Scott Derrickson and Philip Boardman, Derrickson the director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister, and the New York police thriller, with possession and exorcism, Deliver Us from Evil.
This film has not been well reviewed, nor widely-released. The main reason seems to be that there were three very strong documentaries, entitled Paradise, which dealt at much greater length and with greater detail on the case, on the accused, on the judicial processes, on the aspects of Satanism. With such a thorough treatment, many who saw this present film thought it superfluous and were very critical of its seeming bias. However, for those who have not seen the documentaries, and are not familiar with the case, it makes very interesting viewing for those who like reconstructions and investigations of true crime.
We are introduced to the events through one of the boys, Stevie, going on a bike ride with his friends and going into the woods, with the promise that he would be back by 4.30 in the afternoon so that his mother (Reese Witherspoon) could go to work. Her husband (Alessandro Neville) tells her that the boy has not come home. It soon emerges that three of the boys have disappeared, although a voice-over of a little boy begins to tell us that he was there and what happened, tapes of a boy who claimed to have been there but was inventing the story as he was interviewed by the police.
The police investigate, people search through the night, but in the morning the naked bodies of the boys are found. Several of the teenagers in the town come under suspicion, one mentally disabled boy who confesses, then later retracts. Another boy is drawn in just by association. And the main accused, who suffers from mental illness and has been in an institution, becomes the main target because of his interest in devil-worship. There is another boy who might have been involved but who has immediately gone to California, is brought back, and fails a lie detector test during his questioning.
While the film focuses on the family, especially the parents’ grief, it introduces a central character, a private investigator with his own company who, pro bono, devotes his and his staff’s attention to examining the behaviour of the accused. He contributes this material to the defence counsel who find it very hard to do their work because of the presumptions and dogmatic decisions of the presiding judge (Bruce Greenwood).
The investigator is played by Colin Firth, a determined man in process of a divorce from his wife (Amy Ryan). He observes, he questions, he analyses evidence, lack of evidence. One of the reasons for taking on his work is that he is against capital punishment, the taking of three more lives in the city, and the harsh judgements made about them. He does make contact with Stevie’s mother and, as the film ends, gets from her some leads which might help the boys.
In a postscript to the film, it is explained that through a particular legal circumstance in Arkansas, the three convicted men were released in 2011. The film also offers suspicious indications about two of the fathers of the murdered boys, perhaps indicating devil-worship activity in the town at the time.
While it would be important for those interested in the case to see the three documentaries, they are not readily available, and this particular rendition would rouse interest in the case, the administration of justice, and the effect of the later release of the accused.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out July 24, 2014.