Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley Jr.,
Cast/Crew Commentary; TIFF Q&A and extras; Deleted Scenes; The Confession
For anyone who fancies themselves an advocate for true justice, West of Memphis is practically a must see feature documentary. The film, on a certain level, serves to "wrap up" the almost unfathomable journey of three young men known as the West Memphis 3, young men who were convicted in the brutal murders of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas after what many regard as a bit of a sham of a trial based largely upon the trio's goth-like appearances and what sure feels like a coerced confession from one of the three, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., a young man with borderline intellectual functioning who seems to have been more than a little led down the road to confession for a crime it's very doubtful he or Damien Echols or Jason Baldwin committed.
If you're familiar with the critically acclaimed Paradise Lost films, then you're familiar with this case and may be asking yourself "Why do we need another documentary about this case?"
The Paradise Lost films, co-directed by Joe Berlanger and Bruce Sinofsky, basically destroyed any convincing argument that these three even might be guilty. This became one of those cases that became a favorite of celebrities, with Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp and Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines both having a long-term interest in the case and both appear in the film. Filmmaker Peter Jackson and his wife, Fran Walsh, have worked for years on the case and serve as producers on this film.
In fact, it was a lawsuit filed by one of the boy's stepfathers, Terry Hobbs, that really serves as a driving force behind this film. Hobbs sued Maines alleging slander, a lawsuit that opened the door to deepening the investigation in the case and getting Hobbs on record to testify and confront some pretty remarkable evidence that suggests his involvement. Hobbs lost his lawsuit, while the resulting investigation ended up providing a wealth of information that would eventually help to free these three young men.
With the involvement of Jackson and the involvement of Hollywood in this case, many expected that West of Memphis would be one of the Oscar nominees for Best Documentary this year. Indeed, it is one of this past year's strongest docs and certainly one of the most compelling. The film was picked up by Sony Classics for a limited theatrical run, and even at nearly 2 1/2 hours in length the film is captivating and absolutely gripping even if you know the end result.
There is a lot to think about once West of Memphis starts its closing credits rolling, mostly along the lines of wondering how a justice system can fail so miserably even after virtually every shred of proof has been destroyed and, in all likelihood, the real culprit has been identified. Even being familiar with the case, I found myself aghast at watching these three men released only after they'd exercised what is known in Arkansas as the Alford Rule, a rule that allowed them to maintain their innocence while pleading guilty. The agreement was that they would serve no more time, but the conviction would stand.
The result? Three little boys are still dead and, in all likelihood, the killer is still free.
Director Amy Berg paints an admittedly one-sided argument, an approach that may seem obvious but does occasionally hinder the film's effectiveness. It's also a tad disappointing to see such an argument built up against one particular suspect only to have no reference to that argument even discussed once the film has ended and Damien, Jason and Jessie are free after having served nearly 20 years.
As one might expect, West of Memphis is beautifully and disturbingly photographed and the film is definitely not for the squeamish or young. There's archival footage of the bodies on more than one occasion and Berg doesn't shy away from the case's more disturbing themes of satanism and ritual abuse.
There weren't really words to describe how I felt after watching West of Memphis. Even knowing how it all ended, I found myself leaving the theater in a stunned silence and amazingly disappointed in a justice system that seemed far more invested in protecting itself than in protecting the people it was supposed to serve.
Jessie, Damien and Jason are free. So is the man who killed three eight-year-old boys.
Justice has not been served.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic