WEST OF MEMPHIS – AFI Film Fest Review
The case of the “West Memphis Three” is well-trod ground. Not only was it exhaustively examined by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky in their Paradise Now trilogy, but it’s also the subject of a new documentary, West of Memphis, directed by Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil) and co-produced by Hollywood mogul Peter Jackson. But unlike Berlinger and Sinofsky’s longitudinal study – which encompasses three separate films that aired on HBO over the past 15 years – West of Memphis is a testament to the influence that outside parties have had over the evolution of the case from local miscarriage of justice to international cause célèbre attracting the attention of advocates like like Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, punk icon Henry Rollins, and Jackson and his spouse, Fran Walsh.
West of Memphis begins with a necessary rehashing of the facts. Sometime on a spring evening in 1993, three eight-year-old boys were murdered in the Robin Hood Hills area of West Memphis, Arkansas. Their naked bodies were found submerged in a drainage ditch, their hands and feet bound with their own shoelaces. Claiming that the bodies also showed signs of sexual mutilation, the authorities quickly and somewhat bafflingly came to the conclusion that the murders were part of a satanic ritual. Three local teenagers – Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin – were convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison, save Echols, who was sentenced to death for his alleged role as “mastermind” and leader of a secret devil-worshipping cabal.
The police’s jump to Satanism as motive resembles a twisted version of that Sherlock Holmes axiom: When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Except, argues Berg, when you fail to exhaust all probable explanations. West of Memphis doesn’t dwell so much on why these three particular people were railroaded beyond being poor outcasts in the middle of the Bible Belt with dark tastes in music and fiction. Instead, it focuses on mistakes made in the criminal investigation and the state’s willful ignorance of evidence that points to a different perpetrator – Terry Moore, the stepfather of one of the murdered boys. Though he was never formally considered a suspect by the state, the filmmakers dig up many acquaintances who attest to past instances of Moore’s violent and abusive behavior.
Besides strongly suggesting Moore’s guilt, the film also includes well-researched refutations of the evidence used to convict the Three; for example, a trip to a turtle farm shows how the supposedly satanic mutilations were likely caused by animals scavenging the bodies post-mortem. If there’s a weak link, it’s in the emphasis on the case as a slow-burning cultural phenomenon. Berg and Jackson completely miss the irony of accused “cult leader” Echols using his considerable charisma to attract celebrity attention to his cause, his letters from prison read at benefit rallies by the likes of Vedder and Johnny Depp. Though the film’s main agenda is exoneration, it’s also about the lionization of Echols (who nabs a co-producer credit), which seems inappropriate given the minimal information presented about the other two men who have also languished behind bars for over 18 years. Still, West of Memphis is a rousing call-to-arms that convincingly presents its doubts about the case without wringing its hands about the efficacy of the entire justice system, so long as there are people willing to fight for what is right.
“West of Memphis” screened at AFI Fest and will receive a limited theatrical release in December.