The story behind the West Memphis Three and their extraordinary and desperate fight to bring the truth to light about the failure of justice that led to them to jail. Told and made by those who lived it, the filmmakers' reveal shocking and disturbing new information about a case that still haunts the American South.
Amy Berg’s unwieldy recounting of the West Memphis Three murder trial is constructed to provide closure to this already well-documented case. But instead it opens up a whole new subset of inquiries specifically addressing the lasting impact of this undeniably compelling yet obviously self-promoting film.
The most troubling aspect of the film is its vanity
Berg burst onto the documentary scene in 2006 with her Oscar-nominated exposé on a paedophile Catholic priest, Deliver Us from Evil, and expectations were high when it was announced she would chronicle one of the most high-profile murder cases in modern American criminal history: the controversial trial and subsequent imprisonment of Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin. As teenagers, the three friends from Arkansas were convicted of the 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys: Christopher Byers, Steven Branch, and Michael Moore.
Berg’s 145-minute film covers similar ground as the earlier, much-lauded Paradise Lost trilogy from directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. She references the landmark documentaries on occasion, though it has been reported the two men are unhappy with Berg for effectively stealing their thunder. It was Berlinger and Sinofsky who first presented crucial new evidence pertaining to the flawed police investigation and prosecutorial methods; Berg’s film retells a lot of this detail with great skill but also with a sense of ownership that irks.
It’s not until well into the second hour of West of Memphis that Berg plays her strongest card. As the innocence of the three men clarifies, it becomes evident that the chief suspect is Terry Hobbs, stepfather of victim Branch and a man with a dark and violent history. It’s in the fluid deconstruction of his alibi and moving interviews with people left damaged in his wake (the friend whom he used as an alibi on the night of the killings; a step-daughter driven to drugs after a life living in fear) that the director hits her stride. (The question of Hobbs’ involvement was also raised in the final Paradise Lost film: Purgatory).
The most troubling aspect of the film is its vanity. One often senses West of Memphis is less the about the search for truth and justice and more about that search as a component in the construction of a celebrity mythology. The charismatic, photogenic Echols co-produced the film with Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, both of whom make on-camera appearances: Echolls as he meanders about 'the village’ in New York, giving money to buskers; Jackson recounting just how infuriated he and partner Fran Walsh were when they originally heard about the case and the role they played – along with Henry Rollins, Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, Patti Smith and Johnny Depp – in helping to secure the young men’s release.
Two very distinct films co-exist within West of Memphis: one is the shocking story of a judicial system whose values and ideals can be manipulated for personal gain and mob-justice satisfaction; the other is how celebrities find a common goal when someone who exhibits all the makings of an unappreciated artist, i.e. one of their own, is badly done by. Amy Berg’s film contentedly basks in the glow of an injustice put right but ignores the open-ended horror of an unsolved multiple-homicide. Somewhere along this narrative’s mammoth timeline, examining the construction of modern social heroes became more important than the memories of three little boys.