Despite a very detailed series of documentaries on this subject (Paradise Lost) already existing, West Of Memphis has appeared on cinema screens at Sundance and now London Film Festival. Director Amy Berg has created a much more concise, if a tad biased, look at the case of the West Memphis three with the most recent footage seen. The case is one that has been in the public eye for many years for various reasons but most notably, the failure of justice in the case in Arkansas. After three young boys were found brutally murdered in 1993, three teenagers were convicted (Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelly Jr. and Jason Baldwin) in a series of trials that could be straight out of a television show. Following their prosecution the public started to get involved with the case claiming there wasn’t enough evidence to prove their guilt and they shouldn’t be incarcerated. With support from Eddie Veder, Johnny Depp and others, the campaign has been ongoing in an attempt to prove their innocence and find out who really committed the crime.
As a documentary it should be unbiased and presenting all sides of the story, but West Of Memphis feels very one-sided and almost as though it’s ramming one opinion relentlessly, which it sort of is. It starts with an overview of what happened in 1993, with some shocking pictures and footage, particularly of one of the mothers being told her son is dead. She breaks down, falls to the floor and screams. It’s a very personal moment and something that shouldn’t be seen by anyone but immediate family. Frankly, I’m surprised it was used. It doesn’t stop there. We are shown awful images of the bodies, footage from the trials and one very harrowing shot of Echols in the back of a police car which is reminiscent of Ezra Miller in We Need To Talk About Kevin. There are interviews with the families of both sides, lawyers, supporters of the campaign and even Echols himself from jail. It’s impressive the amount of information Amy Berg has got hold of but she should have used it to provide an unbiased account of the events. There’s one section about Terry Hobbs which comes across as a very biased account of what happened. He is portrayed as someone with something to hide but because the film is a documentary and not a murder mystery, it’s just annoying.
Having not seen the Paradise Lost series and being completely new to the case works in favour of this film. It’s a compelling and horrific story that’s beautifully told. It’s also surprising how recently some of the interviews were filmed; a few were in 2011, and as said before, filmed just days before the Sundance screening. Some of the interviews are fascinating, particularly one with a man who after the three accused entered Alford pleas, takes it upon himself to declare them guilty because of their agreement to enter the plea, despite them not having a choice. The footage of their hearing for the pleas is moving with the judge making a speech he didn’t have to make, highlighting the limelight and rollercoaster the case has been, and remains on. Another highlight is the letters read out by Echols and his wife which show Echols to be quite eloquent and poetic, not at all what you’d expect. There’s plenty of upsetting footage and parts about things which have clearly gone wrong with the judicial system. For example, the police interviews with Misskelly are in fact a coercion exercise and to hear people talk about them is quite hard.
Overall it’s a brilliant documentary and one worthy of your time. Even if you know nothing about the case it provides an interesting insight into a case that’s been so badly handled it’s ongoing even now. Despite the views not being left entirely to the audience, West Of Memphis makes some good points and manages to create an atmosphere that is upsetting, deeply uncomfortable in places and uplifting in the space of two and a half hours. And that’s what films should do, make you feel something.
Director: Amy Berg
Writers: Billy McMillin, Amy Berg
Stars: Michael Baden, Jason Baldwin, Holly Ballard
Runtime: 147 min
Country: New Zealand