Devil’s Knot – a dramatisation of the notorious West Memphis Three trials, in which three metalhead youths were hastily and unscrupulously convicted for the allegedly occult murders of three children – doesn’t take long to establish itself as a film of bracing shoddiness.

We open in Memphis, 1993, as housewife Pamela Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon) washes dishes whilst listening to Eva Cassidy’s 1997 cover of ‘Wade In The Water’; her 8-year-old son and his two friends soon to be reported missing before being discovered the next day, their dead bodies floating in a nearby ditch. In just a few minutes of screen time, we’re introduced to not only the film’s hideously chalky, daytime-soap visual sheen, but also the sacrificing of period-specific verisimilitude for a painfully obvious ‘foreboding’ music cue.

With the exception of the disquieting, matter-of-fact ensuing scene detailing the shocking discovery made by local police, and Witherspoon’s strong work in the film’s courtroom scenes, Devil’s Knot (based on the events as told in Mara Leveritt’s 2002 book of the same name) is the kind of true story that’s so poorly conceived, even viewers familiar with the case might start to doubt the things they knew to be facts. That’s especially true of Colin Firth’s private investigator Ron Lax, who, as written and played by Firth, seems to have been conveniently blessed with the ability to see into the case’s future as soon as he’s assigned to it.

It takes a special kind of laziness and ineptitude to render this material – already the subject of the astonishing Paradise Lost documentary trilogy, and 2012’s more one-sided West Of Memphis – so dramatically inert, which makes it doubly disappointing that it’s directed by the once-great Atom Egoyan, whose depictions of bereavement and grief in his career-defining ’90s films Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter were so unsentimental and wrenching. With tough competition from numerous cash-grab sequels and remakes, Devil’s Knot still manages to stand tall as one of 2014’s most inessential films.

1.5/5 stars

Devil’s Knot opens in cinemas Thursday July 24.

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