“West of Memphis” doesn’t ignore the fact that filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have already crafted a trilogy of documentaries concerning the perceived injustice of the West Memphis Three, three Arkansas teens convicted in 1994 of murdering three young boys in 1993. In their small town, the threat of satanic cults made the juvenile delinquents ripe for persecution, but over the two decades since, conflicting testimonies and newly uncovered evidence have caused many to reach out and champion their cause of innocence.
Celebrities like Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Johnny Depp and ‘Memphis’ producer Peter Jackson have raised awareness and funds to cover the necessary legal fees, while others – including Lorri Davis – saw Berlinger and Sinofsky’s “Paradise Lost” films and dedicated themselves to the appeals of Damien Echols (to whom Davis would later be wed), Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. as they were subjected time and again to the cruel throes of bureaucracy. It was a long-spanning crucible akin to the one documented by director Amy Berg in her previous film, Oscar-nominated “Deliver Us From Evil,” about those haunted by sexual abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest. And here she returns with “West Of Memphis,” an exhaustive and exhausting chronicle of justice sought by victims on all sides of the West Memphis Three case.
Even though it often simply outlines events as they occurred in chronological order, ‘Memphis’ maintains the fundamental grip of a well-structured mystery. The first reel is devoted to presenting the case as it was commonly accepted in 1994: Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were given to occult pursuits and therefore, they must have been guilty of mutilating and murdering these innocent children in the name of Satan. There was little reason for a jury, let alone the general public, to doubt the scenario, and when Berg shows some graphic crime scene photos, it’s hard not to feel a visceral pull towards the assignment of blame at any cost.
The two hours that follow are an intentionally staggering encapsulation of appeal after appeal, suspect after suspect, motive after motive in which the three young men are subjected to leading questions from authorities, political ploys from the halls of power and damning reports from witnesses falsified or otherwise. Many, if not most, of the participants are interviewed on-camera, ranging from jurors to prosecutors, from the parents of the prosecuted to the parents of the victims, and although Berg includes an overwhelming amount of information – legal documents and DNA evidence and late-inning accounts by neighbors – she does invite questions as to why we never get any alibis from the WM3 for the night of the crime or why Baldwin and Misskelley weren’t interviewed in prison while Echols was contacted at length.
Perhaps the trickiest aspect of the film is its 150-minute running time, a length that allows the case to be considered with commendable scope, but amplifies the occasional sense of selective depth. The interviews included are extensive (some were filmed as recently as last week), perhaps too much so. Seemingly candid therapy sessions have an oddly staged feel and the noble involvement of famous faces threatens to skew the film closer to back-patting territory, just as the predominant involvement of Echols as the sole recipient of a death sentence runs the risk of painting him as a martyr over and above his imprisoned brethren.
These odd moments and oversights, however, can’t distract from the morass of facts and falsities and fairness (or lack thereof) which grows murkier than the creek in which those three bodies were found. Agonized parents find themselves re-examining their once-certain beliefs of guilt, while culprits refuse to acknowledge their own fallibility as part of the legal system, or as part of a family unit, or simply as a part of civilized society. As much as the initial details of the case itself could and did elicit a visceral reaction, it’s the prolonged fallout and follow-through that prove to be even more moving, finally building to a point where even the well-publicized happy ending can be feasibly constituted as a worrisome moral and judicial compromise.
For all of its thorny concerns, “West of Memphis” is more often than not an emotionally effective investigation into how real-life villainy may be more insidiously present than commonly assumed, how persistently elusive the truth can be and how a genuine sense of hope can persevere after years and years of trials and other tribulations. [B+]