TIFF13 Reel Reviews: Devil’s Knot

Is the true life story of a small-town murder mystery too doc-saturated? Some say so, but film writer Thom Ernst argues this could be one of Atom Egoyan's biggest films to date.
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Even in its early stages, Atom Egoyan’s latest thriller, Devil’s Knot, was being touted as a high-profile project. The film got the greenlight in May 2012 from New-York based Worldview Entertainment, which financed and produced the film, and the announcement was met by a flurry of mainstream and trade press.

With Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth attached to the film, as well as being based on a dramatic and sensational murder case, Devil’s Knot could be Egoyan’s biggest commercial success.

Devil’s Knot is a dramatized account of the killing of three boys and the witch-hunt (literally) that followed.  Driven by grief and prejudice, a small town in Arkansas condemns three young men – trailer-park outsiders with a penchant for Metallica and black clothes – of the crime. They are dubbed as the West Memphis Three (although could the name also not apply to the victims?) and are given life sentences though the evidence against them is weak and contrived.

In many respects this is prime territory for Egoyan.

Egoyan became internationally known when his adaptation of Russell Bank’s novel, The Sweet Hereafter, which earned him an Oscar nomination for best director and best screenplay as well as sweeping the Genie Awards.

Devil’s Knot in many ways is a return to the themes and structure of The Sweet Hereafter.

That’s not likely to be something Egoyan wants to hear; what filmmaker wants to be perceived as making the same film twice?  But comparisons are inevitable and not necessarily bad.

In both films a town is in mourning with a need to find someone to hold responsible.  Each film has its scapegoat as well as a corporate outsider with his own personal issues.

But where The Sweet Hereafter is based on fiction; Devil’s Knot is not.

Then there is hurdle of having four documentaries that have already chronicled these events with footage and interviews from the victim’s family; the lawyers and the accused making some critics wonder if Egoyan’s dramatized account is redundant.

But this is the kind of concern voiced by insiders. Not everyone has seen the documentaries and for those who haven’t, Devil’s Knot has the alluring premise of mystery, corruption, murder, cultism and a courtroom drama.

The challenge left to Egoyan is to create something that goes deeper than the facts without exploiting the crime.

International all-media distribution sales have been set up in South Asia through Tanweer Fmilms;  in Spain with DeA Planeta Home Entertainment; Switzerland with Ascot Elite Entertainment Group; and Remstar Films has all media rights for Canada.  Paradiso Entertainment has purchased theatrical rights for the Netherlands and Senator Film has theatrical rights in Germany.

Thom Ernst is a film writer, critic and former exec producer and host of TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movies. Throughout the Toronto International Film Festival, he’ll be offering insight into, and market analysis on, Canadian films in the festival lineup.

See all of Ernst’s TIFF13 Reel Reviews here.