West of Memphis
Evidence at hand says familiar documentary subject deserves one more look
West of Memphis
Directed by Amy Berg
The key to making a memorable documentary is finding a good subject. Documentaries are rarely about style (though an argument could be made in the case of Errol Morris’ work). Documentaries are almost exclusively about subject. Find yourself a person, a place, an incident, a cause already filled with drama and emotion, and half your work is done. In that respect, West of Memphis, the new film from Amy Berg (director of 2006’s Catholic abuse exposé Deliver Us from Evil), is a bit of a cheat. Berg didn’t exactly pull her subject out of thin air. The trial of the West Memphis Three has been the subject of not one, but three award-winning, HBO-produced documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. What about the infamous case of three Arkansas teens convicted of murder—mostly because they liked heavy metal and wore black—is left for Berg to explore in the wake of Berlinger and Sinofsky’s exhaustive Paradise Lost trilogy? As it turns out, a lot.
Even if you’re intimately familiar with the facts of this case, West of Memphis makes for mesmerizing, mouth-hanging-open viewing. Berg’s film serves as both an exacting summation and an enlightening end-chapter to the previous films on the subject. Berg doesn’t ignore the work of those who came before her, incorporating its existence into her film’s narrative about crime, justice, publicity, celebrity and tenacity. In some ways, West of Memphis is less about the three suspects and their flawed trials and more about the culture that grew up around this epic miscarriage of justice.
As recounted in the Paradise Lost films, Damien Wayne Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin were put on trial for the murder of three 8-year-old boys in suburban Robin Hood Hills, AK. The community believed the high schoolers had slaughtered the young boys as part of an elaborate Satanic ritual—despite the fact that almost no evidence supported that conclusion. Nonetheless they were convicted and sent to jail (with alleged “cult leader” Echols ending up on death row). Almost immediately the public outcry began. Clearly, to any dispassionate observer not caught up in the “Satanic panic” of the late-’80s, these three had been railroaded by a visibly broken, possibly corrupt legal system. Justice was in no way served by the conviction of these teens, and the very likely result of all this highly dramatic distraction was that a killer still stalked the streets of West Memphis.
In the process of recounting the case, West of Memphis tracks the efforts of the “Free the West Memphis Three” movement. While Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin languished in prison, their case was rapidly becoming the first “crowdsourced” murder case. Hundreds of volunteers, lawyers, detectives and even celebrities pitched in to help. Berlinger and Sinofsky’s films tried to pin the murders on the stepfather of one of the murder victims. New DNA evidence seemed to exonerate the three convicts. Famous faces like Peter Jackson, Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins (all interviewed here) contributed money and support to the cause. Every single thing unearthed seemed to point to the innocence of the West Memphis Three. And yet, the Arkansas justice system refused to listen to a word of it.
West of Memphis provides its own highly convincing theories about what happened back in 1993. Much of this is based on a sober reexamination of the forensic evidence, and it makes for as absorbing a murder mystery as any you’ll hear. As curious humans, of course, we want to know the truth. Sadly there is still no definitive answer to this whodunit. But any way you slice it, Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin are victims. And its nice to see their story have an ending. Perhaps it’s not the most satisfying one—a “CSI”-worthy capper filled with surprise confessions, weird twists and a tidy emotional catharsis. But West of Memphis does provide an important lesson that justice isn’t something that simply affects the victim and the perpetrator of a particular crime. Justice is something we should all pay close attention to, making sure it’s faithfully served and compassionately dispensed—lest that blind lady with the sword chop all our heads off.