The Devil’s Knot – Atom Egoyan (2014)


If you don’t know the story of the West Memphis Three by now, I’m not sure where you’ve been living. Even rock-dwellers have heard it. There have been four documentaries, a handful of books, news stories and countless rallies with musicians as diverse as Metallica, Natalie Maines and Pearl Jam lending their names to the cause of three misfit teenagers from rural Arkansas who were convicted of the murder of three pre-teens in the early 1990s.

Whether they were wrongfully convicted or not has been contested in the court of law and of public opinion for much of the last two decades, since the first documentary, Paradise Lost, aired on HBO in 1996, three years after the murder and two years after their conviction.

If, by chance, you’ve somehow never heard of it, this film – a “based on a true story” feature, not a documentary – re-creates the story of the murder of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore in May 1993. The nature of the murders – the boys were found in the woods naked and hog-tied with their own shoelaces – led investigators to believe this was an occult murder, and they eventually set their sights on three local misfits: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley.

At the center of the film is Pamela Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), the mother of Stevie Branch, and Ron Lax (Colin Firth), a private investigator who is suspicious of the style of justice meted out by the local police. Overwhelmed, the police let the pressure of the case, and of the media interest in it, lead them down a rabbit hole of bungles and fabrications in order to send the boys to trial as quickly as possible in a kangaroo court.

It’s unclear what the director, Atom Egoyan, intended to do here. The film has no personality or authorship. There is no arc or drama, only scenes lined up one after another. Egoyan gets so bogged down in the facts of the case that he sidesteps telling the story at all. It has no point of view.

That leaves Colin Firth largely wasted as the film’s conscience, and Witherspoon has not exactly found her comeback as the emotionally erratic mother of Stevie Branch; but it’s Egoyan who has failed the story, not their performances.

What might end up being the most interesting thing about this film is that it was eventually the wedge that drove two of the suspects, Baldwin and Echols, apart. Echols, who was an executive producer on the documentary West of Memphis, objected to how he was portrayed in the script for Devil’s Knot, for which Baldwin was an executive producer. Being too close and too protective of their own stories and their own personas may be the downfall of both films, but that’s especially the case with Devil’s Knot, which not only has no suspense to speak of, but also has no closure, art or direction. If you’ve come to expect more from Egoyan over the years, he’s failed you as well.

Cold Weather – Aaron Katz (2010)



After breaking up with his girlfriend in Chicago, Doug (Cris Lankenau), a listless college dropout returns to his hometown of Portland, Oregon to live with his well-adjusted sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), who is has seemingly had only a frayed, partial disclosure contact with over the years. When his ex, Rachel (Robyn Rikoon), visits and subsequently goes missing, Doug uses the knowledge he has gleaned in Criminal Justice classes and Sherlock Holmes novels to try and find her.

Sounds like the synopsis for a pretty decent indie mystery thriller, but director Aaron Katz does little with the film aside from use the pretty Portland scenery to good use.

It’s a problem of trying to serve two masters. It’s a quirky mystery thriller, or it’s a film about a brother and sister reconnecting. It appears to actually be the latter, but the scenes of their reconnection are so sparse and sporadically spaced out that it’s a difficult element to piece together as the film’s main course.

The bulk of the film is spent on the mystery, but really the bulk of the film is spent on misdirection. First you think Doug’s coworker Carlos (Raúl Castillo) has killed Rachel, then a guy in a pickup truck possibly killed her, then she’s alive and apparently a hooker of some sort, then someone has stolen her briefcase full of money she was really in town to deliver. In the end we find out nothing about the mystery and little about the characters.

I like a well played bit of misdirection just like the next guy, but it’s a little too heavy handed here, especially since it never pans out to anything. We don’t find out what was in the brief case, but it’s not in a cool Pulp Fiction way where you can speculate on it, instead it is left to a mundane, almost unimportant existence. Instead of cracking it open to look inside, Doug and Gail sit in the car waiting for Rachel and Carlos and listen to mix tapes he made her during high school. It is a betrayal of the urgency the rest of the plot has had.

It’s a complete momentum stopping ending that is basically unworthy of the film. It’s actually a really good film until it so abruptly stops. Like Joe Swanberg’s Alexander the Last, it was almost like they kept shooting the film in order until they ran out of money and called it a film. It just ends. Credits, that’s it.

Still, Trieste Kelly Dunn is a wonderful surprise as the put together Gail, who slightly regresses into high school mode when her slacker brother comes to stay. She plays the role smartly and gracefully, with a great ease and confidence that plays in contrast to the uncomfortable, frail-voiced girls that usually fill these roles.

It ends up being deeply disappointing from Katz, who I rate very highly as a director after his great second feature, Quiet City. I had the chance to interview him when that came out and I found him to be a smart, insightful guy, deeply ambitious (in the best possible way — he mentioned a desire to shoot a western among other things) to not be pigeonholed as one of those mumblecore guys, which he really isn’t, even though Quiet City qualifies. The skill with which he handled the entire film up until the ending gives me great hope about his future projects at the very least.