By: Henry J. Fromage (Four Beers) –
The case of the West Memphis Three has been a source of unending fascination for Hollywood. The story of the sensational murder trial and the quest for exoneration of the innocent teenagers convicted in it has spawned four documentaries and soon the inevitable Hollywood adaptation, starring Reese Witherspoon.
As this person
West of Memphis is the most comprehensive documentary so far. Peter Jackson and his wife (I’m sorry… Ms. Jackson?) have long been involved in the West Memphis Three’s defense, helping turn it into a cause célèbre, and produced this Amy Berg-directed film. It starts right at the beginning, with the tragic murder of three young boys, then documents the Satanism-tinged, blockbuster trial that railroaded three teenagers, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley into life imprisonment or death row. Lastly, it documents the decades-long struggle to exonerate them, even with an incredible amount of evidence of their innocence, leading up to last year’s controversial resolution to their case.
West of Memphis is an improvement on the three Paradise Lost documentaries in several ways. It’s certainly slicker-looking, which has led to several Hollywood offers for Berg. It’s also an excellent Readers Digest-style boil down for those preferring to invest two hours instead of six plus on the story.
Eliminating the point of great literature since 1922
Most importantly, though, the film had access to a ton of never before seen footage and material. The effect is the most comprehensive defense of the West Memphis Three yet shown, and the gross negligence of the prosecution has never been clearer. Also incredibly interesting is the part of the story completely untouched on by the Paradise Lost docs- what comes after. We get to see Damian, Jason, and Jessie months after their Alford Plea, as they adjust to a world they haven’t seen in two decades, when they were still just boys. It’s the small moments, like when Jason mentions that he never owned a suitcase before, that are the most powerful.
Is the circumstantial evidence that Terry Hobbs is the real killer compelling? No doubt. Just as was the circumstantial evidence that it was Mark Byers- the theory expounded upon in Paradise Lost 2. And the circumstantial evidence that got the West Memphis Three convicted in the first place. The point is, until there is concrete evidence, it’s goddamn irresponsible to paint someone as a murderer, no matter how much it fits the narrative.
Skeezeball? Yes. Murderer? ____?
Damien is the star once again, but with the increase in coverage of practically everything else, it’s disappointing to see Jason and Jessie continue to be underrepresented. It’s fascinating to see how different creative teams can influence perceptions of a person, as in this one Damien comes off as more naïve and deluded than in the Paradise Lost films. Also, Peter Jackson doesn’t resist the opportunity to give himself a big ‘ol pat on the back.
The most concerning thing about this documentary, though, is its choice to forgo the classy road for the broader, gaudier sensational one once in awhile. In particular, a montage of autopsy photographs shot almost like a horror film, complete with knife cut sound effects, is in shockingly poor taste.
If you want a recap of the infamous West Memphis Three case that covers pretty much everything, this is the best documentary yet. Unfortunately, it also repeats some of the unfortunate choices of its predecessors.
Take a Drink: every time someone mentions Satanism
Take a Drink: every time there’s clear police or prosecutorial misconduct
Do a Shot: whenever your rage boils over