Don’t Look Away From Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot

Above: Colin Firth and James Hamrick in Atom Egoyan's Devil's Knot
Above: Colin Firth and James Hamrick in Atom Egoyan's Devil's Knot

Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot opens with a trundly, physical shot of someone walking, or crawling, through a dark woods. Within seconds the film tells us that it is “based on a true story,” but the nature of truth, and our ability to access it, is called into question on this film’s shadowy, perspectival journey.

Devil’s Knot concerns the murder of three young boys in Memphis in 1993. Three slightly older boys, who come to be known as the West Memphis Three, are subsequently targeted by the Memphis Police force and community as the perpetrators of the crime.

There is little evidence that these teenagers commited the actual crime. However, they are interested in Satanism, witchcraft, and heavy metal. This, and the brutal murder of three children, is enough for the small town, afraid of the dark, and a pressured police force to pin a killer’s badge on someone.

Against Reese Witherspoon’s wooden grieving mother, Colin Firth plays the investigator. He, Reese’s foil, is introduced into the film early, even before the boy’s murders, which happen off-screen within the first act.

Three bodies are pulled out of a river, hog-tied and naked. A man in a tie and short sleeves weeps and shakes on the shore. Pentacles and cat skulls. Egoyan does not shy away from the grisly or morally ambiguous facets of his story, he suggests that the true crime is looking away.

Lonely investigator Ron Lax represents relativity in the film, as does Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, which makes you wonder who the real devil is. Lax suggests the innocence of these three teenagers as all others assert their guilt, offering a counter-narrative that, as the film progresses, seems all the more possible.

Allesandro Nivola is subtle and compelling as Hobb’s husband and stepfather to one of the murdered boys. So is the comic-relief supplying Kevin Durand as the adoptive father of another: “The Devil’s forces have already been at work here in West Memphis.”

We read the stories we wish to, not those in front of us, Atom Egoyan’s opinionated, somewhat meolodramatic and occasionally, albeit unavoidably, predictable film says. It’s a fault no juror or artist is free of.

Devil’s Knot opens in theatres in Toronto and Vancouver on January 24th.

Zach Buck

Zach Buck is a writer and editor currently living in South Korea. He serves as the official editor of Spatial Studies magazine HEADREST. In 2016 he released experimental digital archive game house.xct_ with Other Families, and it can be read about on

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