Review: West of Memphis (Sundance 2012)
PLOT: The story of the West Memphis 3; three teenage misfits who, in 1993, were convicted of the murder of three young boys. The prosecution presented the three teens as Satanists, who killed the boys in a ritual killing. A few years later, the film PARADISE LOST raised serious doubt as to the trio's guilt, leading to an eighteen year battle to set them free.
REVIEW: WEST OF MEMPHIS is an exhaustive summing-up of the West Memphis 3 case. Coming hot off the heels of PARADISE LOST 3, which was recent enough to include trio's eventual release from jail, WEST OF MEMPHIS is, as producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh have repeatedly claimed in interviews, the appeal trial that the West Memphis 3 never got.
The saga of the West Memphis 3; Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin, really is one of those tales that's too fucked-up to be fiction. No single documentary could do justice to the colossal cluster-fuck of justice that occurred back in '93, so it's fitting that we now get a fourth, exhaustive (running 150 minutes) documentary, recapping the whole saga, for those might have missed the PARADISE LOST films (myself included).
The '93 arrest and conviction of the WM3 only takes up a small fraction of the film, with most of the running time being devoted to the work done behind the scenes, which included the hiring of numerous lawyers, a former FBI profiler, and private investigators by those who worked behind the scenes to set these guys free- including Jackson, Walsh, Natalie Maines (of The Dixie Chicks), Henry Rollins, Eddie Vedder, and more.
If anything, WEST OF MEMPHIS is designed to erase any doubt that might still exist in the minds of anyone familiar with the case. Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin are clearly innocent, but rather than simply be satisfied with that, a rather strong case is made against someone else involved in the case- and by the time the credits roll, it's obvious that the person the filmmakers are accusing is clearly guilty- with this being criminal investigation the man in question will likely never get.
Two of the most damning interviews were actually only conducted last week, with the film coming to Sundance straight from the editing room. It's hard not to side with the filmmakers (although Walsh and Jackson are the producers, the director is actually Amy Berg, who directed DELIVER US FROM EVIL)- but, while their evidence is damning, it's worth noting that in PARADISE LOST 2, similar conclusions were drawn about someone else involved with the case- which here are refuted on-camera by Jackson himself. Hopefully, the same mistake isn't being made twice.
My misgivings aside, at the very least WEST OF MEMPHIS should finally prove definitively that the West Memphis 3 are innocent- and that the real culprit, whether it's the person accused here or not, is roaming free- which, in the words of Echols himself, is an even worse travesty of justice than what happened to these three INNOCENT men. For that, WEST OF MEMPHIS is a film that absolutely needs to be seen. My gut tells me that years from now, when people will no doubt be studying this as a particularly bad miscarriage of justice, this, along with the PARADISE LOST films, will be invaluable documents.