DEVIL'S Knot, with Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth, is a gripping follow-up to your wonderful thriller Chloe, which was such a hit for Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore.
Thank you! Again, we have an extraordinary ensemble cast and unlike Chloe which was very concentrated on those three characters, this was just a massive project with a huge cast and they're are all so dedicated to telling the story and really do something very generous.
It was very generous of Reese and Colin to take on these roles because they were really part of this ensemble – they weren't traditional starring roles.
We pretty well know right from the start what's happening. Could you set the scene for us?
Devil's Knot is about one of the most mysterious crimes in American history. Three boys were found naked, bound and brutalised in a swamp in the deep South and at the crime scene there is absolutely no trace of any evidence. No blood, no DNA, nothing seems to have been moved. It was a supernatural crime scene, given the horror of the crime, and it was clearly an act of evil.
There was this tremendous pressure on the southern town to find out who did this evil and at the end of the day we're not sure. Three young men were identified, a whole legal process was put into place to find them guilty but it ended up being something of a witch-hunt.
There wasn't really any clear evidence at all and it's a deeply mystifying case but it's also such a good subject for a drama. It's a modern-day version of the Salem witch-hunts.
Usually an audience has some expectation of clarification and resolution by the end. In this film there isn't any. Did you ever worry at some point that the audience might feel cheated by this?
That's the risk. And that's what attracted me to the film. I mean, you could never write this story in this way because it would seem too perverse but this is what happened and I found in doing the research, even looking at the quite brilliant documentaries about it, they would almost find a resolution by pointing the finger in some way: this is the person who did it, this is who you should have gone after.
But the more you look into it, the more you realise that was just conjecture. That 20 years after this case, we'll never know and yes that is frustrating and very disturbing but there are times when we have to live with the unknown and that's what the film is about.
We're following these characters through and trying to understand what it means to have no agency, what it means to have these questions, especially in the context of a town that's so religiously infused in which there are answers provided, answers of a spiritual nature.
Yet what happened wasn't so much spiritual as real, you know. Those bodies were discovered that day and it was a gruesome and, I would suggest, a very planned determined crime.
I don't think there was anything spontaneous about what happened in the swamp that night and yet we will never know.
Devil's Knot trailer . . .
How did you come across the story?
I'd heard of it and then I read the book and the court transcripts and I was just so enthralled by the nature of what happened in West Memphis 20 years ago and that there could be such a public witch trial in which people understood there was no hard evidence yet these three boys were condemned to death. There was something so symmetrical about the fact that three young boys were found murdered and the community then sacrificed three young men in retribution.
What do you think happened?
Well, I think what happened is what happens in the film. But, yes, that is just conjecture as well so I could tell you what I think happened but it doesn't really have any place. It's purely based on a theory that's not even explored and presented. No one else really thought about it, it was something that was uttered to me by someone there while I was doing research . . .
When fingers were pointed at the father?
But it wasn't the father who actually did it. I think the boys might have been involved with some other people who might have done it but again there's no point in going into that, there's just no hard evidence and even if one pursued it there'd be no way of proving it so it's like any one of the other strands – just a theory.
I don't think either of the stepfathers could have been involved in those murders but I think they might have been socially involved with those murders, possibly associating with people who were trying to extract something from them which would explain why it were so unusual about the way they behaved. They might have known the killers and yet they were involved in the crime themselves.
Sorry, I'm being a little mysterious because, again, it's just a theory and I think you can't be involved in a film like this and not come up with your own theory but ultimately they're no more substantial than the ones already floating around.
Isn't it weird, isn't it odd we're talking about this horrifying crime but there's no resolution and there won't be. That's what's also so deeply disturbing about this is – that the real killers are still out there and they haven’t even begun to be discussed.
The great byword of our times is "closure" and it's the one thing you don't give us.
Colin is riding at the peak of his stardom and for him to take this role where he's poised to come to the rescue but his hands are tied was very generous.
Colin Firth is an amazing actor and has had quite a remarkable rise to prominence with Mamma Mia, The King's Speech. I interviewed another director who worked with him who said Colin Firth appears to be doing less and less on camera and yet his performances are becoming increasingly layered and more subtle. He almost walks and acts imperceptibly. How did you find him to work with?
I found him to be the most generous actor. Yes, he is riding at the very peak of his stardom and for him to take this role where he played a character poised to come to the rescue. He's sitting there in a courtroom in a suit and he feels like he should be Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and yet ultimately you know he has no agency at all.
He's there working for the very green publicly-appointed defence team and realises they're in way over their heads. He can't really do anything. And it's a study of frustration, of someone who's not going to be able to help.
It's almost Kafkaesque. He's observing all this and sees this machine at work and there's nothing he can do about it except watch it fail.
It was a huge challenge for Colin to take on this role, a risk as well, but he plunged right into it and that just speaks to him as an artist, what he's prepared to do.
For a man who has no power in the story he comes across as such a strong person.
He doesn't come across as weak, even though his hands are tied.
That's right, he's very strong. The character he's based on, Ron Lax, is a very successful private investigator who took on this case pro bono because he didn't believe in the death penalty. Only to suddenly find himself in the situation where he was watching three young men sentenced to death for a crime he knew they didn't do so he's aware and he's powerless.
We understand the outrage and we understand, through Colin's performance, our own ability, or lack of it, to affect change.
Reese is really part of the South. That's why it was so important to have her attached to this film. She knows that community so well.
You and Reese Witherspoon have created a terrific role of the mother. It could have been just a one-note performance and yet she's not just the hysterical mother but a real person.
Yes, because Reese is so really in the South. That's why it was so important to have her attached to this film. She's one of the few actresses who know that community so well and the details of how a woman in that community would react to this.
And she had to go through a remarkable transformation. She has every emotional reason to believe these three young men might have been guilty and yet she begins to question this. And it's almost a heroic attempt to break free of her own prejudices.
And again it's not sort of framed in a traditional Hollywood way. It's through the small glances and gestures and feelings that she's able to inhabit it. It's a real ensemble piece, as I said, and she graciously is just one of the many parts.
Your next movie, The Captive, is about the disappearance of another young person – were you reluctant to do such a similar story?
The Captive was something I had been working on for many years. I was planning to shoot that film and then Devil's Knot so I wasn't planning one to follow the other, it just worked out that way. And they're very distant tonally. Yes, it seems odd to have these back to back but they were coming from different places.
Tell us a little about the film.
Again, we sort of understand what's going on right from the beginning. A father is driving his daughter home from skating practice and stops off to get a pie. She's in the back of the car. And he comes back and she's disappeared, and over the next eight years he tries to understand what might have happened to her.
The Captive trailer . . .
The film examines two couples – the parents of the child trying to deal with this eight-year period, the detectives assigned to this case and finally the captor and the captive themselves. The film starts off and we see she's still alive so we know she's being held in captivity but all these relationships change profoundly over the eight years. The film is an attempt to deal with the effect of this corrosive event on all these couples.
It's a thriller but, again, it's not conventionally told because we basically know what's happened, it's really an examination of the psychology of each of these three couples. And how that creates tension.
Do we find out why she disappeared? Is there more resolution in this one?
We know the basics from the beginning. She's been abducted by a pedophile and she's now part of this ring. It's a horrifying circumstance and the full extent of it and how each person in this ring has insinuated themselves into society which is gradually revealed over the course of the film. But it's really an odd, very unusual story because it's not based on the exposition of plot but rather the details of these six characters. ❏
■ The Captive opens in cinemas on December 4.
■ The Captive on IMDb
■ Read Ian's other interviews and reviews:
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