Tensions mount in this dramatic recounting of the West Memphis Three
It is May 5, 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas. Three young boys playing in the nearby woods never come home for dinner. Their bodies are found the next morning, throwing the local community into chaos. In the rush to find and convict the killers, police focus on a trio of teenagers suspected of devil worship. As the mother of one of the murdered boys (Reese Witherspoon) tries to come to grips with this unspeakable tragedy, she is desperate to believe that the killers have been found and will be brought to justice. It is only when an investigator (Colin Firth) reveals that the evidence doesn’t add up, the community is forced to face the reality they convicted the wrong people.
The case of the West Memphis Three drew national attention for its combination of slipshod Arkansas justice and the tragic events that drove it, including claims of satanic rituals and devil worship. Devil’s Knot is a largely unnecessary dramatization of the police investigation following the heinous crime and ensuing trial of the three teenagers convicted and eventually freed, years later. The true story had already been detailed in great depth by the excellent HBO documentary series, Paradise Lost.
Director Atom Egoyan takes a crack at the tragic murders and the following witch hunt, led by an all-star cast headlined by Witherspoon and Firth. Devil’s Knot was almost certainly produced with aspirations for Oscar gold. The number of expensive character actors and stars that have cameo roles scream Oscar bait, while the subject matter lends itself to a number of issues near and dear to Hollywood’s heart for what they deem as important. Remarkably in some ways, Devil’s Knot shows admirable restraint in its portrayal of the trial. Like an episode of Law & Order or any number of television shows, the narrative unfolds like a courtroom drama. There is genuine tension and suspense as confusing facts gets revealed throughout the investigation and trial, painting a picture of the teenagers’ innocence.
This is not Witherspoon’s finest hour as the grieving mother of one of the young boys. It is through her character we see the changing perception of the three teenagers and their supposed guilt, though the script gives her clumsy dialogue and a couple of awkward scenes. She is there to cry on command and eventually finger another person in the crime. Colin Firth is much better as the idealistic legal investigator, Ron Lax. It is his conviction that these three teenagers are being railroaded by a lazy and inept Arkansas police department that identify him as the hero in this story. An idealistic man, Ron fights for what he believes in trying to save the three teenagers from the death penalty that hangs over them.
Devil’s Knot has the feel of an expensive movie made for Lifetime’s movie of the week or Dateline, only this time made with serious Hollywood talent. Its script plays out as a true crime mystery, including a number of alternative suspects tossed in for the sake of dramatic purposes even though we find out in a note at the end a likely suspect for the murders. The movie does have a few things going for it, namely a stellar cast with a bevy of recognizable actors. One will probably get more out of it if not previously familiar with the West Memphis Three’s case and the final outcome.
Devil’s Knot looks fantastic on Blu-ray. The 1080p video is pristine and picture-perfect, courtesy of the Arri Alexa digital camera. One question remains about the intended aspect ratio for Devil’s Knot, presented here in a 1.78:1 widescreen. It was possibly framed at 2.39:1 for theatrical distribution and one wonders if Image Entertainment used an open-matte transfer for home video.
The 114-minute main feature fits on a BD-25, encoded in AVC at modest video bitrates. Its top-notch clarity and noiseless video compress cleanly without artifacts, perfectly replicating the Digital Intermediate’s superior resolution and detail. The video is immaculate, free of imperfections. There are no traces of undue processing to the transfer, likely pulled direct and unaltered from the movie’s native Digital Intermediate. Close-ups demonstrate extraordinary levels of detail and sharpness.
The digital aesthetic of this movie does leave it feeling somewhat like a feature made for Lifetime. While the black levels are quite good at rendering excellent shadow detail and delineation, everything looks overly bright and glossy.
Devil’s Knot has a quiet 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack with limited surround activity. The dialogue-driven film has the occasional burst of activity for a raucous court setting or press question. A somber score envelops the listener in striking the right tone for this subject matter. Clean fidelity produces accurate dialogue reproduction, though the wide dynamic range leads to the occasional softness in it. For a drama this is an effective but limited mix.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles display in a white font.
Image Entertainment provides Devil’s Knot with a standard set of supplemental features, though it lacks any sort of commentary. The combo set also includes a DVD version of the film and first pressings should include an embossed slipcover. For a subject that has received extensive television and news coverage, this set’s special features feel lightweight.
The Making Of Devil’s Knot (06:57 in HD) – Director Atom Egoyan shares his thoughts in brief snippets, along with Witherspoon, Firth, and Stephen Moyer. They discuss the background and actual events depicted in this film in a fairly thoughtful manner.
Getting into Character: The Cast of Devil’s Knot (07:48 in HD) – A featurette detailing how each actor approached their role, including meeting the real life person for preparation.
Deleted Scenes (05:43 in SD) – Two deleted scenes of unfinished quality that don’t significantly affect the narrative.
Trailers for Blood (02:17 in HD), The Numbers Station (02:23 in HD) and The Double (02:27 in HD) all precede the main menu. For some reason they are not accessible from the menu itself.
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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.