May 9, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tom Long

Review: 'Devil's Knot' bungles true tale of tragedy

The savage murders of three young children spark a controversial trial of three teenagers accused of killing the kids as part of a satanic ritual. James Hamrick is cast as the alleged ring leader. (Image Entertainment)

How can “Devil’s Knot” be so dull?

It is tracking, after all, one of the gravest instances of injustice in modern memory, the imprisonment of three teenagers — commonly known as the West Memphis Three — for the slaying of three small boys.

The case, which has inspired a series of documentaries, hinged on the hysterical belief that the teens were part of a devil-worshiping cult, featured no physical evidence and was a perfect storm of incompetent police work and shoddy jurisprudence.

Which should make for a pretty good film, right? The problem is director Atom Egoyan, working with a rambling script from Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson, can’t find his focus. There are so many characters here that none of them get their due.

The ostensible leads, since they each own an Oscar, are Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth. She’s the grieving mother of one of the dead boys and he’s an investigator who volunteers to work with the defense lawyers.

But characters pour in from everywhere. The film probably should have been built around the supposed teen ringleader, Damien Echols (James Hamrick), a messed-up goth kid. But almost as much time is devoted to his lawyers, to the short-tempered judge (Bruce Greenwood), the confused cops, other parents. Heck, there’s a waitress at a local diner who gets plenty of screen time.

Some characters simply parachute in. Amy Ryan pops by for one scene as Firth’s wife. Why bother? And Mereille Enos suddenly strikes sparks in the middle of the film as a trashy woman forcing her kid into a convenient confession. She’s great, and then she’s gone.

Part of the problem here is the sheer scope of the story. These poor guys were imprisoned for nearly two decades, nobody yet knows the truth about the murders and some of the most interesting developments came after the boys were convicted.

But the grief, the madness of the community, the plain stupidity of the cops, the mass protests that followed the convictions, the horrible power of it all — none of it comes across in this drab film.

'Devil's Knot'

GRADE: D

Not rated

Running time: 114 minutes

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