Synopsis: An examination of a failure of justice in the case against the West Memphis Three
Stars: Jason Baldwin, Damien Wayne Echols, Jessie Misskelley
Director: Amy Berg
Running Length: 147 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: The story of the West Memphis Three has already been covered extensively in three made-for-television feature length documentaries (the excellent Paradise Lost films) and in numerous online articles, specials, and books. So what could the new documentary West of Memphis tell us that we don’t already know? The answer: quite a lot and not enough.
I don’t want to say that I felt West of Memphis was a Cliffs Notes version of the Paradise Lost films with an extra material at the end but that’s a feeling I did have while screening the two and a half hour investigation into the crime that has plagued a small Arkansas community for nearly two decades. Overall, it’s an arresting piece of entertainment that strikes all the right notes that make true crime films so fascinating. Unlike the presentational nature of the other films though, this one seems more tell and less show…like its directing us to come to a certain conclusion based on its own agenda.
After three young boys are murdered and left in a watery grave a modern day witch hunt is enacted and three teens are jailed for the crime. Two are sentenced to life in prison and one is sent to death row and had the case not received such national attention that very well could have been the end of the story. However in the following years a lot of information comes to the surface that indicates the justice system failed these three accused boys serving time for a crime they very well likely had nothing to do with. As more evidence is scrutinized with the latest technology, signs start to point away from the convicted and to family members that may have been involved.
What’s been so fascinating through the years is how the lives of everyone close to the case have taken such cinematic turns. Death, forgiveness, and redemption are all on display in grand fashion – and even the best screenwriter couldn’t have come up with what actually happened in reality.
A swath of celebrities came to the aide of the West Memphis Three and the film is partly the product of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh’s efforts to get involved and search for the truth with other famous faces like Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, and Johhny Depp.
Compiling new interviews with footage culled from decades of information and multiple sources, director Berg tends to jump around in timelines too often. At one point, we’re in 2006 and then we’re in 2012 before circling back to 2005 and then landing in 2007. It can be a bit disorienting when a through line of information is really desired.
Berg and the filmmakers clearly have their sights set on a suspect and aggressively present their case to we, the audience. The television documentaries had suspects in mind as well…but there’s something about the way this feature film goes down a similar path that had me digging my heels in slightly. See, if the whole issue is that the West Memphis Three were wrongly seen as guilty until proven innocent, how fair is that for the film to want us to take that same approach with their #1 suspect? Admittedly, the evidence is pretty strong but that could be a little bit of cinematic license.
No doubt about it, this case continues to haunt anyone that comes in contact with it. Three boys were brutally murdered and that is a terrible crime…but as is the case in any crime there are collateral damage victims as well. The film is strongest when it focuses on these victims and the least focused when it’s zeroing in on a suspect.
Hollywood isn’t done with this story yet. Devil’s Knot, a film adaption of Mara Leveritt’s book on the crime, is due out later this year with star Reese Witherspoon playing the mother of one of the murdered children. If you haven’t seen the Paradise Lost films and have an interest in true crime you must seek them out. West of Memphis is also strongly worthy as an added addendum to those films.