Review: 'West Of Memphis' offers a fresh and vital take on the West Memphis 3 story
Like many people, I have watched the Berlinger/Sinofsky "Paradise Lost" documentaries as they've been made and aired over the years, and I had my sense of righteous indignation poked and prodded by the filmmakers in regards to the case of the West Memphis Three. I've donated money to their legal defense on three separate occasions, and I have found myself emotionally invested in their eventual release to a degree that surprise s me, considering these are not people I know or am connected to in any way.
Several years ago, I first heard that Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh had become interested in the case, and that they were becoming involved in a very direct way. At the time, there was no talk of a new documentary of the topic, but instead it sounded like they were working to prove who the guilty party was, hoping that would help free Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelly. I was told that Fran and Peter weren't interested in having their names connected to the matter in public, but that they were simply doing this out of a sense of moral obligation. I filed it away as "interesting information I can't do anything with" and didn't really think about it again.
Then at the end of 2011, the landscape shifted, the West Memphis Three were released, and just as Berlinger and Sinofsky put their final punctuation mark on the story, I heard that Peter and Fran were producing their own film. And when I saw it on the schedule for Sundance, I knew that it was going to be a priority for me. I was curious to see if they could bring anything new to the table in terms of perspective or facts, and considering how great and exhaustive the "Paradise Lost" movies are, it seemed like a very odd choice.
Now that I've seen Amy Berg's film, I think there is room for both approaches, and I feel like "West Of Memphis" brings enough to the table to stand alongside "Paradise Lost" as a nuanced, powerful look at a miscarriage of justice and the way this case has impacted not only those directly involved, but also everyone who has found themselves caught up in the story from a distance. It also makes a more powerful case for the identity of the real killer than anything I've seen on the case so far, and I'm curious to see if there are any real-world results that stem from this film.
Berg is a strong documentarian, and her earlier feature "Deliver Us From Evil" took some profoundly difficult material and handled it with clear eyes and an even hand. I have to admit, I don't think I could do that job. I don't think I could sit in a room with someone like Father Oliver O'Grady or Terry Hobbs and maintain anything like objectivity. O'Grady was a Catholic priest who confessed to molesting over 25 children, and Hobbs is the step-father of one of the children killed in the Robin Hood Hills case, the man who this film seemingly proves to be the person behind the murders. Berg handles all of the interviews with a feather touch, allowing people to reveal themselves, and there's very little prodding in her approach. This film was shot over a period of about two years, and it's amazing how much new material Berg was able to generate. Anyone worried that this is some sort of vanity piece for Jackson and Walsh does not know Berg and her obvious talent.
"West Of Memphis" absolutely acknowledges the Berlinger/Sinofsky films and the impact they had on things, but because Berg's a totally new filmmaker to this particular cause, she comes at it with fresh eyes. I think one of the few major missteps of the "Paradise Lost" movies was the way they demonized Mark Byers. I get it, because he is a fascinating freakshow in their first film. I know that as soon as I finished watching that first movie, I was convinced that Byers had to have been the real killer. There's nothing investigative to make that claim in the Berlinger/Sinofsky film, but they give him plenty of room to rant and rave and paint himself in a horrible light. Their second film seemed dedicated to connecting Byers to the murders, and while the instinct that someone close to one of the boys had to be involved is most likely correct, they got distracted by appearances. Berg's film underlines the idea that damning Byers based on what type of person he was is no different than what happened to Damien Echols and the other boys. They were convicted largely based on how they looked and what they represented to the Arkansas jury. They were terrifying to the parents looking for answers, and the particular pop culture that they were interested in, the K-mart brand Satanism sold by heavy metal albums and crappy t-shirts, fit right into the idea that there had to be a reason behind the way these three young boys were killed and mutilated.
Gradually, Berg deconstructs many of the ideas I had about the case, and it's obvious that people like Henry Rollins and Eddie Vedder and Jackson and Walsh all spent real time and money supporting an ongoing investigation, determined to find answers. The way things finally come together, and the clarity with which Hobbs is revealed as the likely killer, only makes it doubly frustrating to watch the last act of the film play out as the West Memphis 3 finally use the Alford Plea to settle things with the State of Arkansas. I still don't fully understand the Alford plea, in which the boys all pled guilty, and the state immediately released them from prison in exchange for doing so. It makes no sense to me, and while there is an undeniable emotional charge to watching Damien, Jason, and Jesse all reunite with their families and take their first steps into freedom in nearly 20 years, the idea that they are officially still listed as "guilty" is offensive.
"West Of Memphis" runs a full 2 1/2 hours, but it's always engrossing, expertly made, and ultimately packs a punch even if you're already familiar with the story. I hope the film is seen by as wide an audience as possible, because as long as we allow our justice system to function this poorly, the word "justice" is a farce. It is only because of the harsh sunlight of the Berlinger/Sinofsky films and this movie that innocent men finally have their lives back, but the result of their plea seems to be that the real killer will never have to answer for his crimes, no matter how sure we are that we know his identity now. Unreal.