“West of Memphis” is a powerful, touching and very infuriating documentary about a terrible American miscarriage of justice. It’s a very good film, albeit somewhat weakened because there were already three different films that were just as powerful, touching and infuriating, that were made about the exact same thing first.
The film looks at the case of the West Memphis Three, a trio of men incarcerated for 18 years for a horrific crime- the 1993 murders of three children in West Memphis, Ark.- that they almost certainly did not commit. The three men, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin, were made to sit in jail for a very, very long time after their innocence was clear, as attention focused on the case and celebrities rallied to their cause. The three were finally freed in late 2011, after they agreed to an unusual plea bargain in which they were released in exchange for pleading guilty.
“West of Memphis” was executive produced by Peter Jackson and Fran Welch – along with Echols himself- and directed by Amy Berg, best known for the Catholic Church abuse documentary “Deliver Us From Evil.”
If the West Memphis Three case sounds familiar, it’s because it was already covered in the three “Paradise Lost” films, which were directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, and came out in 1996, 2000 and 2011. Those films were what familiarized many with the case, and laid out in detail that the police and prosecution’s theory of the was flawed, a confession was coerced and Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin did not commit the murders.
The new film goes back all the way through the case, which took place at at time when hysteria about the nonexistent phenomenon of “Satanic ritual murder” was at its height, and follows the trials, convictions, and the many years of appeals. In addition to the chronology, and making a very convincing case that Echols, Misskelley and Jason Baldwin could not have committed the murders, “West of Memphis” focuses heavily on the movement of celebrities, led by Eddie Vedder, the Dixie Chicks and Jackson himself, to push for the trio’s release.
“West of Memphis” also makes a convincing but not entirely airtight case that Terry Hobbs, one of the stepfathers of the victims, was actually the murderer. Hobbs was foolish enough to file a defamation lawsuit against one of the Dixie Chicks, leading to a very incriminating deposition, footage of which is used in the film. One of the Berlinger/Sinofsky films had implied that another of the victims’ stepfathers was in fact the murderer.
The third “Paradise Lost” film was finished only months after the three men were freed and only briefly focused on their actual release, but “West of Memphis” gives more time and attention to their release and its aftermath, including the tense moment in which one of the three was threatening to not go along with the plea deal. It artfully depicts the great moment in which the three of them walked out of the courthouse free, and we also visit each of them in their post-prison lives.
There’s just about nothing wrong with “West of Memphis” itself. It’s powerful, it’s well-made, and it tells a story that’s important and worthwhile, and it has the advantage of existing as one film and not three.
However, I feel like this film’s very existence is somewhat unfair to Berlinger and Sinofsky. They’ve been on this case for 17 years, since the very beginning, they made three films about it, and they played an instrumental role in drawing attention to the case and eventually earning Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley their freedom. It’s kind of like if some director besides Michael Apted stepped in and decided to make a completely unrelated other documentary about the “56 Up” subjects.
And it’s not like “West of Memphis” is a critique of or rebuttal to the “Paradise Lost” films. Sure, it emphasizes different things and is structured differently. This subject is certainly worthy of a fourth movie- and this fall, there will be a fifth, a dramatic feature film version called “The Devil’s Knot,” directed by Atom Egoyan and starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth. But Berlinger and Sinofsky still got there first, and did it best.