Review: West of Memphis


[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of DOC NYC 2012. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of West of Memphis.]

Going into West of Memphis, I was worried the film would be redundant. The three Paradise Lost documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky are so well made, and the two filmmakers helped publicize the plight of the West Memphis Three for at least 15 years. What could director Amy Berg and producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh offer that wouldn’t be a concise rehash?

As the film progressed, I was happy that West of Memphis stood on its own even though some of the material was familiar. It’s like watching Frontline‘s television documentary The Lost Year in Iraq and Charles Ferguson’s feature-length documentary No End in Sight — I can enjoy both even though they cover the same topic.

Berg’s mission is the truth, the same as the Paradise Lost films; the same as Errol Morris’s in The Thin Blue Line and other works of investigative journalism and documentary journalism. It’s great that West of Memphis may help reopen the murder investigation. It’s a bonus that it’s a well-crafted film that stands on its own.

West of Memphis (2012) Trailer

West of Memphis
Director: Amy Berg
Rating: R
Release Date: December 25th, 2012

If you’re unfamiliar with the West Memphis Three, here’s a rundown of events. In 1993, three boys went missing in West Memphis, Arkansas. Their names: Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers. A few days later, their bodies were found in an area called Robin Hood Hills. The children were drowned, beaten, lacerated, hogtied, and naked. Their genitals were mutilated and their lips looked chewed up. The horrific discovery terrified the small community and led to a crusade for justice. The authorities found three misfit teenagers and arrested them. Their names: Jessie Misskelley, Jr., Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols — these teens would become known as the West Memphis Three. When interrogated, Misskelley delivered a perfect confession that implicated Baldwin and Echols in the crime, one so grisly it was obviously linked to satanic worship (the great small town and suburban bogeyman of the 1980s and 1990s). Baldwin and Misskelley got life in prison, and Echols, the alleged ringleader, was sentenced to death.

West of Memphis begins with this rush for justice. It stacks evidence and testimony and the weight of a town’s horror against the three teens. In the heat of the trial, they must have seemed just a trio of taciturn psychopaths. If you weren’t familiar with the case at all, you’d think the West Memphis Three were totally guilty by the 15 or 20-minute mark.

Berg’s choice to open West of Memphis like this is a formally interesting one. She even begins with Pam Hobbs, Stevie’s mother. She still has his boy scout uniform. She still holds it close to her when she misses her son. I think Berg was trying to recreate the mindset of outrage and show how there’s a pressing, visceral need to have justice as soon as possible. Bad things can happen when you rush, maybe even travesties of justice. The rest of the film is all about questioning the prosecution’s case, unraveling the bad work they’ve done, and trying to find answers in things that the initial investigation missed.

Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh became involved in the West Memphis Three case around 2005. That’s when they first contacted Lorri Davis. Davis is Echols’s wife. After seeing Paradise Lost, Davis began sending letters to Echols, and the two struck up a rapport that makes up part of West of Memphis. They were married in 1999, but obviously lived apart, communicating by letter and phone. Jackson appears in the film and talks about funding an independent investigation in the hopes of clearing the West Memphis Three. They hire experts in the field to examine the evidence, including a retired FBI profiler. One of their first targets is the testimony of Frank Peretti, medical examiner for the prosecution. What they find is the first of many sloppy assumptions, but ones that stuck because of the moral outrage.

Aside from bad police work and an even worse trial (the inattentive jury didn’t help matters either), the film highlights the political ambitions of some of the key players in the case. At the center are former Deputy Prosecutor John Fogelman and trial judge David Burnett. They’re interviewed, and occasionally they’re so guarded it’s as if they’re admitting a certain kind of guilt. “I wonder if I should answer that,” one of them says to the camera. Maybe it’s just a recognition of what they did, but one without remorse or apology. You can’t be held culpable, the reasoning might go, at least when you’re just trying to punish the guilty (or scapegoat the guilty-looking innocent).

Gradually the first portion of the film unravels. Testimonies get recanted years after witnesses took the stand. New evidence is discovered that might have been intentionally overlooked because it didn’t fit the narrative of satanic worship. What we’re left with are three teens in prison, their young adult lives taken from them because they didn’t receive a fair trial. Given the attitude of the town, they probably couldn’t have gotten one. Scarier still: the real murder or murderers were never apprehended. I’ve seen a lot of emotions run high about whether or not the West Memphis Three are the real murderers. Independent of that discussion, the most important thing is that evidence is reconsidered and whoever goes to trial receives a fair hearing. That’s all West Memphis Three supporters ever wanted, and that’s the least that the West Memphis Three deserved.

If the opening establishes a sense of guilt which is then eroded with forensic evidence, then the last half of West of Memphis seems to change modes again. The new focus is about trying to investigate a potential suspect based on newly discovered DNA evidence. (Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory also focuses on the new suspect. The road doesn’t lead back to Mark Byers as Paradise Lost 2: Revelations seemed to suggest.) A lot of it has to do with Stevie Branch’s home life and some awful things he had to endure. By bringing Pam and her daughter Amanda into the film, Berg’s able to explore the various family tragedies that surround the child murders and all the deep hurts that haven’t yet begun to heal. It’s one of the more uncomfortable and emotional sections of the film.

The West Memphis Three case is so large, and its legal and personal impact so significant. Berg’s able to juggle all of this without letting her focus go slack. Amid the investigative work and smart forensics, alongside the dissolution of the Hobbs family and the romance of Echols and Davis, there’s also some exploration of the West Memphis Three as a cause. If I remember right, another one of the interview subjects called the West Memphis Three case the first crowd-sourced post-conviction investigation. It was something to get behind and for celebrities to call attention to. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder is interviewed as well as Henry Rollins, both of whom championed the wM3 since the 1990s; Natalie Maines-Pasdar of The Dixie Chicks also figures into the film. Yet Echols notes in an interview from jail that their case, though it caught so much attention, is not unique. These miscarriages of justice happen all the time.

Before the screening started, we were read a statement from Berg. It mentioned that West of Memphis was technically a work in progress, and that it wouldn’t be complete until the case was reopened, the new evidence considered, and the West Memphis Three exonerated. It may happen, it may not. Flawed systems and a state unwilling to admit fault are hard to crack. For now the work continues, and who knows for how long. But the work, even if it is something in progress, is worth doing; the work, though its mission isn’t accomplished yet, is worth watching.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.