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Devil's Knot: Blu-ray + DVD Review

Devil's Knot (2014) movie poster Devil's Knot

Theatrical Release: May 9, 2014 / Running Time: 114 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Atom Egoyan / Writers: Paul Harris Boardman, Scott Derrickson (screenplay); Mara Leveritt (book)

Cast: Colin Firth (Ron Lax), Reese Witherspoon (Pam Hobbs), Dane DeHaan (Chris Morgan), Mireille Enos (Vicki Hutcheson), Bruce Greenwood (Judge David Burnett), Elias Koteas (Jerry Driver), Stephen Moyer (John Fogleman), Alessandro Nivola (Terry Hobbs), Amy Ryan (Margaret Lax), Robert Baker (Detective Bryn Ridge), Kevin Durand (John Mark Byers), Michael Gladis (Dan Stidham), James Hamrick (Damien Echols), Martin Henderson (Brent Davis), Kris Higgins (Jessie Misskelley, Jr.), Brian Howe (Detective McDonough), Matt Letscher (Paul Ford), Seth Meriwether (Jason Baldwin), Rex Linn (Inspector Gary Glitchell), Kristoffer Polaha (Val Price), Collette Wolfe (Glori Shettles), Ted Huckabee (Steve Jones), Kerry Cahill (Jo Lynn), Jet Jurgensmeyer (Stevie Branch), Paul Harris Boardman, Jr. (Michael Moore), Brandon Spink (Chris Byers), Julie Ivey (Melissa Byers), Jack Coghlan (Aaron Hutcheson), Isabella Zentkovich (Amanda Hobbs), Brandon Carroll (Bobby DeAngelo)

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The story of the West Memphis Three, involving the mysterious murder of three young boys and subsequent prosecution of three teenaged ones, was the subject of three HBO documentaries. The first won an Emmy, the third was nominated for an Oscar, and all three were influential in raising awareness
of the case and skepticism of its findings. Featuring convictions, a death penalty sentence, criticism, appeals, and a rare plea deal, the legal proceedings have been such an emotional roller coaster ride replete with human interest that it's little wonder that the saga is still being mined for feature film treatment. A Peter Jackson-produced documentary premiered and was released at opposite ends of 2012. Now, there is the first narrative dramatization, courtesy of director Atom Egoyan and a distinguished cast.

Taking its title and facts from Mara Leveritt's 2002 book, Devil's Knot opens on May 5, 1993, the day when three young Arkansas boys went missing. Our points of entry are Pamela Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon) and her 8-year-old, Elvis-loving son Stevie Branch (Jet Jurgensmeyer), who doesn't return home as instructed before she heads to work as a restaurant waitress. The following day, the bodies of Stevie and his two friends are found, naked and bound, along with their bicycles in muddy waters.

"Devil's Knot" stars Reese Witherspoon as a mother to one of the West Memphis Three killings victims. Prosecution establishes Damien Echols (James Hamrick) as the satanic ringleader of the West Memphis Three.

This heinous, devastating crime is pinned on three teenaged misfits after one of them confesses and a young boy gives an eyewitness account. When he learns that the prosecution will pursue the death penalty, wealthy capital punishment opponent Ron Lax (Colin Firth) decides to offer his services as a private investigator pro bono to the suspects and their court-appointed defenders.

The film paints the accused as targets of a witch hunt. Authorities lack evidence but need answers. They are more than willing to overlook some inconsistencies and pounce on one of the teenagers' interest in the occult and appreciation for black clothes and heavy metal music. Prosecution presents the murders as sacrifices of a satanic cult. The deeper that Lax investigates, the more convinced he grows of the teenagers' innocence. Even Pamela begins to doubt the defendants' guilt as questions arise regarding police's forceful interrogation tactics and failure to explore alternative theories.

Devil's Knot, of course, does not claim to have all the answers of this essentially still unsolved mystery. It directs us to some possibilities, like a burger joint's report of a bloody, disoriented bathroom user and an ice cream boy (Dane DeHaan) who quickly takes off for California and briefly confesses the murders. There's even the chance that a family member could be involved, specifically one of deceased's stepfathers (Kevin Durand, again serving as the face of ignorance, or Alessandro Nivola, playing Witherspoon's hot-tempered second husband), each with a suspicious, potentially incriminating knife. The one point on which the film seems certain is that the Three are innocent victims of injustice, guilty of nothing worse than being stupid teenagers and not fitting in. Much of the case against them is built on the dubious testimony of a trashy mother (Mireille Enos, stretching herself) and her young son.

As a highfalutin private eye of the '90s, Ron Lax (Colin Firth) most definitely has need for a cellular phone.

Devil's Knot boasts an awful lot of talent for something essentially going straight to video.
That obviously was not the original plan, but reactions to this drama have been muted since its premiere at last September's Toronto International Film Festival. The film has received limited theatrical release in Canada (January) and the US (May) too minor to even accrue a box office record. It has fared better in Italy, opening in fourth place in early May and having grossed a little over $800,000 there. Four other foreign territories exhibiting the film in Asia and Africa haven't contributed much to the bottom line.

There's no denying that this is tricky subject matter for Egoyan, whose career has trailed off since 1997's The Sweet Hereafter made him an Oscar nominee for both directing and writing. Once held in high regard, Egoyan's name has grown unfamiliar, popping up in little more than the special thanks credits of Sarah Polley's films. The director does show a heavy hand at times, saddling Devil's Knot with bold, simple characterizations. That's probably not to be unexpected of a screenplay from the writers of Urban Legends: Final Cut and Hellraiser: Inferno. (In fairness, one of them also co-wrote and directed Sinister and both collaborated on The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a pair of highly regarded thrillers.)

Firth's usual struggle with an American accent is glaring and distracting. Witherspoon's co-lead performance isn't as juicy as it would seem on the page. Stronger work is put in by old pros like Elias Koteas and Amy Ryan, who make the most of their brief lone scenes.

Even when relying on invention and conjecture, Devil's Knot remains compelling. How could it not, while depicting the ends of three young lives and the ruins of three barely older ones? The film ends shortly after the original trial's verdicts are read, which of course is hardly the end of this story. It relies on a number of text screens to explain how the case remains unsolved yet closed today.

Image Entertainment brings Devil's Knot to stores on Tuesday in a DVD and the Blu-ray + DVD combo pack reviewed here.

Devil's Knot Blu-ray + DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.78:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
BD: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English); DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: June 10, 2014
Two single-sided discs (BD-25 & DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $34.97
Blue Keepcase in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available as standalone DVD ($29.96 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Devil's Knot boasts strong picture and sound quality on Blu-ray. The 1.78:1 picture is sharp and clean throughout. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio is always crisp and occasionally quite potent, particularly in moments when the droning score flares up.

Director Atom Egoyan discusses "The Making of 'Devil's Knot.'" "True Blood"'s Stephen Moyer describes his contact with John Fogleman, the WM3 prosecutor he portrays in the film.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The film is joined by three extras on each disc.

"The Making of Devil's Knot" (6:57, HD on Blu-ray) excerpts interviews of director Atom Egoyan, author Mara Leveritt, and leading cast members discussing both the real story and their approach to dramatizing it.

"Getting Into Character: The Cast of Devil's Knot" (7:48, HD ) has Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth, Alessandro Nivola, and Stephen Moyer talk about playing real people, whom they met or talked to.

Cut from the film, Johnny Simmons has his interrogation preserved as one of two deleted scenes. A mourner falls at the crime scene on the Devil's Knot DVD main menu.

Finally, we get two long deleted scenes (5:43, SD). One features the interrogation of Christopher Morgan's sexually confused friend
(an otherwise missing Johnny Simmons) and the other shows us the HBO documentarians questioning the Byers (Kevin Durand and Julie Ivey).

The discs open with trailers (HD on Blu-ray) for Blood, The Numbers Station, and Richard Gere's The Double. These are not accessible by menu and no trailer for Devil's Knot is included.

The menu devotes most of the screen to a dramatically montage of clips set to solemn score. The Blu-ray doesn't support bookmarks, but does resume unfinished playback.

Holding two similarly-labeled full-color discs, the insert-less plain blue keepcase is topped by an embossed slipcover utilizing the same artwork.

Never trust a mustachioed man: suspicion is cast over stepfathers Terry Hobbs (Alessandro Nivola) and John Mark Byers (Kevin Durand). Vicki Hutcheson (Mireille Enos) welcomes you to a satanic gathering.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Trashed by critics and deemed unfit for a real theatrical release despite its high-profile cast and subject matter, Devil's Knot arrives on home video with the baggage of a disaster. But this Atom Egoyan dramatization proves to be reasonably compelling, notwithstanding the occasional contrivance, Firth's weak American accent, and the troubling sense of unresolvedness that continues to hang over this tragedy turned cause cιlθbre.

Image's combo pack sports fine picture and sound plus an okay twenty minutes of extras. There's enough of worth in the film to recommend a viewing, though that may just drive you to check out the Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries or some of the wealth of other absorbing information available on this fascinating case.

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Related Reviews:
Directed by Atom Egoyan: Chloe
The Imposter • Fruitvale Station • The Murder of Mary Phagan • The Night Listener
George Washington • In the Valley of Elah • Labor Day • Doubt
Colin Firth: Gambit • The King's Speech • Arthur Newman • A Single Man | Amy Ryan: Gone Baby Gone
Mireille Enos: The Killing: The Complete First Season • World War Z • Gangster Squad | Elias Koteas: Zodiac
Reese Witherspoon: Sweet Home Alabama | Alessandro Nivola: American Hustle | Dane DeHaan: Lawless

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Reviewed June 6, 2014.



Text copyright 2014 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2014 RLJ Entertainment, Image Entertainment, Worldview Entertainment, and The Weinstein Company.
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