Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Blu-ray Review: DEVIL'S KNOT (2014) [Image Entertainment]

Devil's Knot (2014)

Buy the Blu-ray or DVD

The Movie

My history with the case of the “West Memphis Three” goes back to 1996, when I caught Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s excellent documentary, PARADISE LOST: THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS, on HBO. As a teenager myself, who also happened to wear black clothes and listen to heavy metal, I felt outraged at what I saw in the documentary. This led to me eventually using the Internet – something that was still in its infancy at the time – to further research and follow the case of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr, and it’s a rabbit-hole that I still haven’t fully found my way out of. 

The story of the trio, who were accused and convicted of raping and murdering a group of young boys based solely on the fear of the townspeoples’ beliefs that they were Satanists, was one that gathered steam over the years, and eventually led to the boys (who are now grown men) being freed by way of a controversial plea deal a couple of years ago. Still, even with all of the publicity and outrage that the events and trials have been given over 20-plus years in between the murders and now, it’s my firm belief that the general public still doesn’t quite understand the case, its underpinnings, or the consequences that it has had on the boys’ lives or the American Criminal Justice system. When taken at that value, DEVIL’S KNOT, the first film dramatization of the beginnings of the case has quite a bit of worth, but for people who have been obsessively following the case for years (or decades), it doesn’t offer anything new.

That’s not to say that DEVIL’S KNOT is a bad movie; because it really isn’t. Director Atom Egoyan’s translation of Mara Leveritt’s excellent non-fiction book, published under the full name “Devil’s Knot: The True Story of The West Memphis Three,” to the screen is very competent. It’s well-shot (by Cinematographer Paul Sarossy), well-written (by Scott Derrickson and Paul Boardman), well-acted (by a cast including Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth), and the information is accurate (despite a few standard dramatic liberties). The problem is that, with a trio of amazing documentary films from Berlinger and Sinofsky already available, and another more recent documentary (WEST OF MEMPHIS) that is also very good, those with an interest in the subject have already seen something much more dramatic, with real-world consequences, play out on screen, and honestly, any dramatization of the events is likely to play flatly for audiences who have already lived through the story’s full unfolding.

For example, while the scene in DEVIL’S KNOT depicting the murdered boys’ bound-up bodies being found in the stream is grim and horrifying, it has nothing on the actual crime scene photographs that we’ve already seen from the trial footage in the PARADISE LOST films. Likewise, it’s also been widely accepted that Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley are innocent, and they were simply being persecuted for their beliefs and interests. DEVIL’S KNOT doesn’t expand on any of the theories surrounding who may have actually murdered the boys or offer much in that direction.

With that in mind, the question really is, “Why make a dramatized movie on something that is already so well-documented; especially if it is not going to cover the entire history or expand on it in any way?” To that end, it seems that the film was made solely to try and garner Oscar buzz, which is something it ultimately failed to do. Just look at the promotional materials surrounding the film and notice how many times the words “Oscar” or “Academy Award” are used. Witherspoon and Firth are Oscar-winners, and Egoyan was an Oscar-Nominee, so I can understand that push; especially given that the subject matter has the heavy weight of most Best Picture winners around it. But, again, I think that too many people have already seen the previous documentaries, and as for the general public who might still not really understand the case, I’m not sure they would be too aware of DEVIL’S KNOT’s existence.

With that in mind, I think that DEVIL’S KNOT does have a lot to offer as a gateway to the case for newcomers, but I still am not sure it quite gets the message across, and I can’t help but feel that most of that audience would ultimately skip-out on the superior documentaries on the subject. As someone who was so inspired by the case, and its subjects, that I went on to eventually minor in Criminal Justice (a track that led to at least one very large research paper and presentation in college), I can’t say that DEVIL’S KNOT is a bad film; I just think that it’s rather unnecessary and adds nothing to the conversation.

Movie Score


The Blu-ray

Image brings DEVIL'S KNOT to Blu-ray in a decent package with some extras and a great transfer. The original pressing comes with a slipcover.

Video Quality (4.5/5)

DEVIL'S KNOT's 1080p AVC-encoded video transfer is flat out gorgeous. The visuals really pop on the screen, and there is a great amount of detail throughout. Honestly, there is nothing that I found to nitpick about the job that Image has done here, and the film looks damn near perfect.

Audio Quality (4/5)

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track included on the disc is very good. Don’t expect a lot of flash or surround activity, as DEVIL’S KNOT is not that kind of movie. However, the subtlety of the sound mix doesn’t mean that quality is lacking. Dialog is very clear, and Mychael Danna’s score (another previous Oscar-winner) is haunting and foreboding.

Extra Features (2.5/5)

There’s not a whole lot in the way of extras on the disc, but what is included is well-made and presented nicely. Personally, I wish that a commentary track had been included with Egoyan, but I can understand why he (or Image) may have opted to not go that route, as conversation about anything other than the actual facts of the case might be in bad taste.

  • The Making of DEVIL’S KNOT (~7 min)
  • Getting Into Character: The Cast of DEVIL’S KNOT (~8 min)
  • Deleted Scenes (~6 min)

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, DEVIL’S KNOT is a mostly well-made movie whose greatest flaw is that it adds nothing to the conversation around the infamous case that it seeks to dramatize. The film’s focus seems scattered, and ultimately, the ending leaves things unresolved. This would not have been a major issue had the film been released 10 years ago, but after the excellent PARADISE LOST documentary trilogy and the excellent companion WEST OF MEMPHIS, it just seems like DEVIL’S KNOT should have had more to say. Instead, it simply felt to me like a retelling of a story that I had already heard many times before; only with additional liberties taken. I can’t really fault the filmmakers, as they are clearly talented… I just think that it’s possible that the story of the West Memphis Three will never translate properly in a dramatic feature. If anything, maybe the film will inspire some new folks to actively seek out information about the case… I’d suggest a rental for those that are curious. 

Regardless, Image’s Blu-ray looks fantastic and sounds very good, and will undoubtedly please fans of the film.

Blu-ray Score


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