Devil's Knot

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
Devil's Knot Movie Poster Image
Bleak, disappointing retelling of powerful true story.
  • NR
  • 2014
  • 114 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The movie has an incredibly downbeat and hopeless view about human nature and the American judicial system. It ends with two characters who believe that some wrongdoing has been done, but neither has any idea what to do or how to change anything. Still, it could inspire younger viewers to start thinking about what changes could be made in the future.

Positive Role Models & Representations

One character tries to do the right thing in spite of daunting odds, but he's defeated at every point.

Violence

No onscreen acts of violence, but the aftermath of some horrifying violence is shown. In two brief shots, viewers see dead bodies of three young boys (no sensitive body parts shown) -- naked, tied at the wrists and ankles, and drowned. A man covered in blood is briefly shown. Throughout the movie, there are descriptions of satanic rituals and blood ceremonies, as people try to imagine and make sense of what happened. There's an overall sense of gloom, defeat, and sadness in this world where three innocent boys can be brutally murdered. Some graphic crime scene photos are shown.

Sex

A woman attempts to get information from some teen boys by dressing and acting seductively.

Language

"F--k" is used once; other harsh language is infrequent. "Hell" and "goddamn" are heard, and there are many references to Satan and devil worship.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A character takes a quick sip of whisky, and another character pulls out a cigarette but doesn't smoke it. Drugs are briefly mentioned.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Devil's Knot re-tells the story of the West Memphis Three (previously covered in four documentaries -- the Paradise Lost trilogy and West of Memphis), which centers on brutal murder of three young boys, followed by a controversial act of justice that may have ruined three more boys' lives. While no violent acts take place onscreen, viewers will see some blood and disturbing images (particularly the bodies of the three dead boys, which are briefly shown naked and tied up). Strong language is sparse but includes one use of "f--k," as well as "goddamn" and "hell." There are very brief references to drinking, smoking, and drugs. This movie -- which is told with an overall hopelessness about a world in which this kind of thing can happen -- could help people unfamiliar with the story find their way to the documentaries, which tell the story much better and in greater depth. 

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What's the story?

DEVIL'S KNOT tells the true story of the murder of three young boys in 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas. It followed by a controversial trial in which three teen boys -- known as the West Memphis Three -- were convicted based on circumstantial evidence. The general perception of the events is that the authorities viewed the teens with fear and prejudice based on their clothes, their taste in heavy metal music, and their interest in the occult. Devil's Knot focuses on two specific characters: sad, divorced investigator, Ron Lax (Colin Firth), who believes that the teens are innocent, and the mother of one of the murdered boys, Pamela Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), who starts to doubt her convictions as the trial goes on.

Is it any good?

This powerful true story has already been told in greater depth in four documentaries, so a feature film treatment at this point seems opportunistic at best. Through Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's three Paradise Lost films, released in 1996, 2000, and 2011, and Amy Berg's 2012 West of Memphis, the story has become fairly well known, attracting celebrity activists such as Peter Jackson and Eddie Vedder.

Acclaimed director Atom Egoyan is another factor; in his career, he has bounced back and forth between sexy, voyeuristic films (Chloe), where he seems comfortable, and heavy, preachy, message-heavy art films, where he does not. Comparing Devil's Knot to his somewhat similar The Sweet Hereafter, it's easy to see that, where that earlier film had grace, depth, and beauty, Devil's Knot seems all chilly surface, skimming over details and adding only cursory character elements, such as Hobbs' visit to her dead son's classroom. Lacking community or connection, it's a movie of gloomy resignation.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the nature of Devil's Knot's violence. How does its impact compare to the violence in a fictional story? What's the difference?

  • What mistakes were made during the course of this story? How can knowledge of this event help change things in the future, if at all?

  • What's the appeal of this story? Why do you think it's been made into five films (and counting)? What's the difference between a fictional feature film retelling of the story and the documentary versions of the same story?

  • Where do prejudice and stereotyping enter into the story? Why are certain people viewed the way they are?

Movie details

For kids who love true stories

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