West of Memphis (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

film west-of-memphis_75It isn’t a remake, but instead a new documentary on the same topic as the old documentaries.

 

 

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While Amy Berg proved herself an excellent documentarian with 2006’s Deliver Us from Evil, one has to wonder why she thought it was a good idea to make her next project about the West Memphis 3 case. I mean, three of the best documentaries to come out in the past 30 years are about that case: 1996’s Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, 2000’s Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, and 2011’s Oscar-nominated Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, all of which were directed by the team of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. In fact, it seems fair to say that everyone except for those directly involved in the case would have forgotten about the West Memphis 3 if it hadn’t been for the Paradise Lost movies.

Those three kept the case in the public eye, and without these pre-existing, unimpeachably excellent documentaries, West of Memphis would surely not exist. It’s kind of like when Hollywood remakes a classic film—do they really think they can improve upon it in any way? But this case seems even weirder, as it isn’t a remake, but instead a new documentary on the same topic as the old documentaries. Perhaps worse is that West of Memphis was in production at around the same time as PL3, and therefore, the two movies were competing for interviews with key players and things, all rushing to get exclusivity contracts and such—in other words, WoM really stepped on Purgatory‘s toes unnecessarily.

That said, I’ve been following the WM3 case since around 1999 (when I first saw PL1), and have long been ravenous for any new information. Although I was curious about the logic in making West of Memphis, I was looking forward to seeing it all the same. And while I’m still not sold on the venture, it does at least justify its existence, which is quite a bit more than one would reasonably expect.

Briefly, if you’re unfamiliar with the case, a synopsis of the WM3’s plight is this: In 1993, three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark., were found brutally murdered, and after a few weeks, the West Memphis police arrested who would become known as the West Memphis 3: 16-year old Jason Baldwin, 17-year old Jessie Misskelley, and 18-year old Damien Echols. Echols was the supposed ringleader of the bunch and Misskelley was close to being outright mentally handicapped, and the only real piece of evidence against the three is a clearly coerced confession from Misskelley. This is the subject of the first Paradise Lost movie, and while the film itself tries its hardest to present things neutrally and let viewers make up their minds for themselves, it’s hard to watch the film and think that the WM3 did it—even if you think they might have, it’s hard to fathom how they got convicted for it, given the extreme lack of credible evidence against them.

Paradise Lost 2 and 3 catches up with them in jail—Jessie and Jason got life sentences, and Damien got a death sentence; they all appealed their case, and the purpose of those movies was to keep them in the public eye. They became a pet cause for a lot of celebrities, including Peter Jackson (who produced West of Memphis), the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines, Johnny Depp, and Henry Rollins. But while Paradise Lost 3 was in production and almost completed, with the help of a lawyer paid for by Peter Jackson, the WM3 were released from prison on very short notice under the Alford plea, which allowed for them to plead guilty and get out on time served, but then continue to argue their innocence in public—it’s basically a way for the courts to let them out of jail without admitting that it did anything wrong.

And this is where West of Memphis comes in. Is it as good a film as any one of the Paradise Lost movies? Hell, no; it isn’t even a fraction as good. Still, if you’re trying to get someone interested in the case, it’s easier to talk them into watching one 147-minute documentary rather than three documentaries that total over 400 minutes. What’s more, the original three Paradise Lost movies were made as the case was still very much in progress, and West of Memphis was, by and large, made with the benefit of hindsight. And beyond those two good arguments for WoM‘s existence, it does manage to find at least a couple of good points to make about the case, mostly in the interpretation of the damage done to the young victims’ bodies.

One final thought, which is kind of hard to ignore: While it is completely detestable that the “justice” system did its best to railroad the WM3, and instead of solving the case of the three murdered boys, it tried to add one more murder (Damien) to the list and ruin the lives of the other two (Jason and Jessie), the case of the three murdered boys is still unsolved, and that’s not to be forgotten. It is a victory that, with the help of the original Paradise Lost movies, the West Memphis Three are now free, but meanwhile, those movies also put at least some effort into figuring out who the real killer was. All West of Memphis can do is reiterate the points that the PL movies made long ago—what we need is some real progress in the original case, and not just backslapping that it wasn’t made as much worse as it originally looked like it would be. | Pete Timmermann

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