Review: West of Memphis
When the title “WEST OF MEMPHIS” appears on-screen in Amy Berg’s chilling new documentary on the West Memphis Three, we see two young men playing basketball. It is a haunting image of a town that has known its fair share of troubles. It is also tells a powerful tale of an economically challenged community that clings to morality and decency. What happens when that misleading tranquility is corrupted can be just as horrifying as the act itself. When those affected by tragedy are out for blood, some may be willing to do anything to feel safe and secure.
When three teenagers were charged and convicted of the murder of three eight-year-old boys, justice was “served” for the little town of West Memphis, Arkansas. However, since the crime occurred in 1993, we’ve seen three documentaries – the trio of HBO’s PARADISE LOST features - and technology has allowed more advanced research to properly investigate this heinous crime. You’d think that this same recycled material would lose its power, yet with this startling look at the American justice system gone wrong, interest continues to grow.
It all began as Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh (LORD OF THE RINGS) heard the story of Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin, who all insisted their innocence yet were still convicted. Jackson and Walsh put well needed time and money to investigate the case with a little help from a few other famous faces including Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, The Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines, Henry Rollins and Johnny Depp. The filmmakers contacted Berg to help bring to life this analysis in this riveting new documentary. While the beginning may seem familiar since WEST OF MEMPHIS covers similar territory to PARADISE LOST, the director branches out into some new information they have discovered.
Much like the previous films, this utterly compelling film plays out like a mystery. Pulling back the layers of those involved to reveal an outright miscarriage of justice. It is frustrating to see the politics in making an arrest by public officials who seemingly have their own career in mind over the accused right to a fair trial. Let alone doing a thorough investigation to find out what exactly happened on May 5, 1993.
WEST OF MEMPHIS runs 147 minutes, yet it is one of the best and most provocative films of the year. The interviews include several of the people involved in the case as well as the three men arrested for the crime. Yet it is Damien Echols in the spotlight, the man who has spent over half his life waiting for death. There is a clear love story quality as the film focuses on he and his wife Lorri Davis (both carry a producing credit). With their interaction you begin to see where much of his strength to survive came from. This is especially evident in hearing their letters and correspondence and her dedication to getting him released – as well as Misskelley and Baldwin – that add a little humanity here.
There is one man however that WEST OF MEMPHIS clearly implies as involved in the murders thanks to interviews with people close to him and DNA evidence collected through Jackson and Walsh’s investigators. You have to be careful here however as in PARADISE LOST 2, similar claims were made about John Mark Byers. However there wasn’t quite as much damning evidence pointing to Byers - whose step-son Christopher was one of the victims – as there seems to be to this films suspect.
With this forth film about the WM3, we continue to learn more about the players involved and it is still fascinating. Even still, for those who know of this particular case you may feel that some of the material is all too familiar thanks to PARADISE LOST and a ton of media coverage.
SPOILER ALERT – do not read the remainder of this review in case you know nothing about this case and are seeing this with fresh eyes!
Since the three men are finally free courtesy of the Alford Plea, you have to wonder if this case will ever truly be resolved. According to this controversial plea, they are allowed their freedom yet were required to plead guilty. Thus, no other further investigation is legally required, which is a terrible tragedy. Thankfully, the filmmakers behind WEST OF MEMPHIS continue to search for the truth. This is a story that sadly still lingers on, one which is brilliantly captured by director Amy Berg. It is a captivating albeit disturbing look at failed justice and the search for the truth… do not miss this film!