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One summer afternoon in 1993, three young boys named Stevie, Christopher and Michael went to play at a local nature spot called Robin Hood Hills in West Memphis, Arkansas. Stevie’s mom, Pam (Reese Witherspoon), told him to be home by 4:30 p.m., but the exchange was the last she would ever have with her son.

The next morning, the boys’ bodies were found near a creek; naked, beaten and mutilated. The police department launched a massive manhunt and a month later, three teenagers accused of being Satan worshippers are arrested. The accused became known as the “West Memphis Three,” but despite subsequent convictions, they were all released in 2011.

“Devil’s Knot” is director Atom Egoyan’s fictional retelling of the true story of the murders, and it’s a piece that’s atypical of his work. Egoyan had never been a director to sidestep crucial issues — his stories are almost always exercises in coaxing out the lies and truths of ordinary life in contemporary North America. But he keeps a restrained distance from the events that unfold in “Devil’s Knot.” Egoyan wants to get at the truth here, but it also seems like he’s resigned to never knowing what that is.

Devil's Knot
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Director Atom Egoyan

Egoyan concentrates on established facts and elements that are safe to discuss, centering on defense investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth) — a pillar of sanity in a story where everyone else is (understandably) losing their minds.

There was real evidence that would have exonerated the teens and yet it wasn’t enough to influence the verdict, which, according to “Devil’s Knot” (the trial is practically re-enacted here word for word), was a foregone conclusion. Instead of asking what really happened, the film lingers on the miscarriage of justice. While this is undoubtedly important, Egoyan fans may be disappointed; we’ve become used to the director’s unapologetic, almost brutal honesty.

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