Atom Egoyan's flat, uninvolving, oddly uncentered Devil's Knot offers little for anyone who has followed the case of the West Memphis Three or seen any of the four documentaries that turned their conviction, on no evidence, of three 1993 child murders into an international cause. Since the most engaging character, teen Damien Echols, is locked up for most of the film, Egoyan and the screenwriters have to crowdsource protagonists. They give us Colin Firth as a P.I. working pro bono for the defense and occasionally flirting limply with an Arkansas diner waitress, and Reese Witherspoon as Pamela Hobbs, mother of one of the slain boys.
Witherspoon is adept at grieving in shapeless big-box-store clothes, and it's refreshing that a movie asks us to sympathize with a downwardly mobile born-again. But after a couple wrenching scenes of her facing the loss of her son, Witherspoon's Hobbs gets sidelined, just like most of the characters, whose inner lives Egoyan declines to plumb. She mostly just turns up in court, witnesses the case's unconscionable holes, and occasionally makes a pained face, thinking "Now, wait a second, here . . ."
The small-town details feel production-designed rather than lived in. That goes double for the lives of the men. Curiously, the actors portraying Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley get too little time to register. Elsewhere, Egoyan musters some of the power he brought to The Sweet Hereafter, another lost-children tale. His crane shots of the search before the missing children are discovered stir a sickening dread, and the moment of grisly discovery is terrifying without feeling exploitative.