West Of Memphis
There are two things that should work against filmmaker Amy Berg’s new documentary "West of Memphis." An intimate study of the controversial West Memphis Three murder trial and subsequent appeals, this new film comes after not only three acclaimed documentary films have already been released, but also the subjects of the film have already been released from prison. So you’d think that you’d find nothing new here but a well put together documentary of the entire eighteen year ordeal. In that, however, you’d be wrong.
For the first hour of the film we are shown the compelling story that we all know; in 1994 three eight-year-old boys were brutally murdered and thrown in a nearby stream in a small Arkansas town. Three teenage boys who were seen as outcasts (Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin) were accused of the crimes and sentenced to death or life in prison. When the HBO Film "Paradise Lost" was released, questions of the boys’ innocence and the town’s mishandling of the case presented compelling evidence for appeals to be filed and the death sentence to be staved off. With a growing base of supporters including musician Eddie Vedder and actor Johnny Depp, the case continued to receive national exposure. Lorri Davis (who wrote to and eventually married Damien Echols) started her own campaign and along with "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh, began trying to find out who really killed the boys.
While the first 45 minutes doesn’t present anything terribly new except some fascinating interviews with some of the victims’ families as well as Lorri Davis and Echols himself, there is a notable shift when everything changes. In the sequel to "Paradise Lost" focus was put on one of the dead boy’s step-fathers: Mark Byers. And while many believed he appears to be the type that would do such a horrible thing, we are reminded that many believed that Damien Echols was the type to murder children as well. With not enough compelling evidence to pursue him, Davis, Jackson, and Walsh began to look at Terry Hobbs. What they find is unnerving. In addition, there is also new evidence about what actually caused some of the mutilation on the boys’ bodies, as well as DNA found at the scene. All of this makes this film a triumph of suspense, investigation, compassion, and redemption.
But since the case is still open and the murderer(s) has not been found, there still isn’t a true happy ending. Furthermore, when the West Memphis Three were released, they did so by having to state that they were guilty of the crime. By doing so they were let go, but could not sue the state and would be forever branded as murderers.
All are still fighting to clear their names.
The film is a long one at 147 minutes, but it is relentlessly fascinating. Editor Billy McMillin does a tremendous job at holding our interest and compiling what must have been months of new footage along with 18 years of old clips. Amy Berg ("Deliver Us From Evil") puts together not just a documentary film, she puts together a case study of a justice system gone wrong. She has helped accumulate and document evidence that could truly help in solving one of the most famous crimes of our lifetime. And she does so in an entertaining, informative, and intelligent way. The result is both intellectually and emotionally inspiring.
This is a film that demands to be seen. It should anger you and get you to stand up and demand that people be accountable. It’s a dangerous expose on how politics and ego can drive a trial in someone’s favor, causing victims of scores of people in the process. In that, it is a devastating, but important film.