West of Memphis Movie Review

Featuring: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley, Henry Rollins, Eddie Vedder
Director: Amy Berg
Writer: Amy Berg, Billy McMillin
Website: www.sonyclassics.com/westofmemphis/
Perth release date: Thursday 14th February
Reviewer: Karen (one-word verdict: intriguing)

Story:
Previous documentaries have covered the story of the West Memphis Three – Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley – who as teenagers were convicted in 1993 of murdering three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. This film summarises and builds on earlier treatments, with a detailed updated investigation of the compelling evidence that inspired the celebrity-led public fight to expose the truth, establish the innocence of the Three, and have them released from prison.


Review:
This documentary about a famous murder case in Arkansas should kick you in the guts with its depiction of police mismanagement and misconduct; a flawed, politicised justice system; wrongful imprisonment; and wasted lives. But I was curiously unmoved. I don’t approve of documentary techniques that purposely try to wring out of their subjects and their audience every skerrick and stripe of possible sentiment, but this one seems to err on the side of restraint to the point that the emotional core of the story has been lost.

Yet the facts are compelling. In 1993, three primary school boys were murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas, and before a year was out, three young men (one borderline mentally retarded, one only 16 at the time of the murders, and one suffering from mental illness) were convicted and jailed. Police investigators made a hack of the crime scene and subsequent enquiries; someone came up with a theory that the murders were a part of Satanic ritual, and the three suspects were tried in an atmosphere of public outrage at the crime. The young men, Misskelley, Baldwin and Echols, became known as the West Memphis Three, and high-profile supporters like Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, and the Dixie Chicks, and three previous documentaries (made by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky under the generic header title Paradise Lost) kept their case in the public eye.

I should say that I have not seen those documentaries, nor had I heard of this case at all, so I was pleased that West of Memphis, after atmospheric establishing shots that place us firmly in the geography and cultural context of Arkansas, gives a straightforward recounting of the chronology of the case, so everyone is up to speed. Then it gets down to the real business of smashing the validity of the convictions and building a case for the guilt of another party.

Clearly, West of Memphis does not aim to be “objective”. One of the convicted young men was witnessed and documented elsewhere at the time of the murders (in evidence not presented at his trial), and prosecution evidence for the Satanic ritual theory and mutilation of the boys’ bodies is shockingly inadequate; given these facts and others it would be impossible not to take sides.

But, having taken sides, and with the previous documentaries, the books about the case, the mountains of paperwork, the famous supporters and the fascinating detail and characters involved, what do you leave out of your film? Very little, to judge by its length (147 minutes), and yet there must have been much that landed on the cutting room floor.

Director Amy Berg says in this interview that the love story between the handsome, intelligent Damien Echols (whose troubled teenage years resonated so strongly with many supporters) and Lori Davis, who married him while he was in jail and has led the support team for years, is at the heart of the film, but it’s an uphill battle to portray such a thing when all you can show on the screen is one person on a telephone talking to another in solitary confinement in a different state.

Women who correspond with and marry convicted murderers are a “thing” – but Davis doesn’t come across as a nutjob. Her intelligence, hard work and perseverance are wholly admirable, as is the support of filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who teamed with her to pursue justice for the WMT. Echols gets a producer credit, and his involvement may be the reason that West of Memphis seems to lack focus.

For the story is not Davis’s, and nor is it the story of the three murdered boys (I was grateful that the horrifying and inexpressibly sad crime scene photographs are flashed only briefly – although frequently – and mostly in mercifully blurred detail). It’s about the other victims, the West Memphis Three themselves, and their families, and here is where I feel Berg has not quite nailed it.

Think back to the nineties. This was pre-Internet, for most people. Pre-mobile phones. Pre-9/11. The changes in the world have been immense, and in these decades of change, three young men who would normally have been becoming adults, forming relationships and establishing their working lives have been incarcerated. With their innocence apparently established, they remained incarcerated while judges and officials intransigently refused to admit the possibility of error in the original trial.

In order to escape incarceration, they must enter a guilty plea (an ‘Alford plea’, which enables them to maintain their innocence, but precludes the possibility of future compensation – I want to say, “Only in America!” but for all I know something similar might exist here too).

There’s precious little time given to how the three feel about all of this, no sense of any bond of shared experience, of contact or of future plans. I wonder now whether Echols’ involvement with this production limited its scope to what he felt comfortable revealing. I also wondered whether his time in prison, and the support he received from Lori Davis, have enabled him to get a better education than he would have managed had all of this not happened to him.

Some of that wondering, though, happened after I had read more about the case on the Internet, so if my main criticism is that West of Memphis doesn’t fully engage its audience, I can’t deny that it piqued my curiosity and made me look further.

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6 thoughts on “West of Memphis Movie Review

  1. G’day Karen.

    Delayed getting around to commenting on this one – again. If procrastination was a crime, there’d be no shortage of evidence to find me guilty without resorting to fabrication and bringing satanic cults into the mix!

    Nice review. I differ from you on some points, but that’s par for the course. Probably best to go straight to the points of difference – no fun just high fiving (actually, that should be a crime!).

    Like you, I had heard nothing of this case prior to seeing the movie. Unlike you, I have done no research since, and was fully engaged from go to whoa! So, I can’t agree that the filmmakers “erred on the side of restraint” and thus compromised emotional impact, or that they failed to engage the audience (ie: audience = me…can’t speak for others, and obviously not for you).

    On the contrary, I was enraged by the egotistical, stubborn and dishonest personalities that kept three innocent young men incarcerated all those years. Nothing new about miscarriage of justice, of course. Justice isn’t the main game in the court system here, either (ask Mallard, Beamish, Button, the Mickelbergs et al). It’s all about winning the case, and whether that involves drawing on fact or fabrication is very secondary. Add politics, and truth starts to fade into the distance as any sort of priority, to which this film account of the Memphis Three case bears stark and compelling testimony. I don’t know how you remained untouched by the unfairness and ‘collateral damage’ that was exposed in the course of this film.

    Further, I’m not sure the filmmakers had much option but to be “restrained” – as you point out, they had a paucity of material to draw on with the two main players, Echols and Davis. In focusing on these two, they did their best to give the audience someone to identify with. I don’t see how emotional manipulation could have been effected even if that had been part of the filmmakers’ agenda. Unlike with a fictional piece, they can only deal with real-life material available.

    Besides, I thought the filmmakers had their work cut out covering so much background and new evidence as it came to light, and seeing the changing circumstances through to the present. For me, the weakness of the film – and the only aspect that threatened to detract from my engagement – was the number of people involved and interviewed. I had trouble keeping track of who was who.

    I do take your point about there being little investigation of how the wronged three feel about their incarceration, the campaign to free them, and the eventual outcome of that. I assumed they were unwilling to discuss the matter on camera, and it wasn’t an issue for me as I watched the film. However, I’m with you that it might have upped the emotional impact of the piece if the guys had been interviewed thus.

    As you know through our earlier email exchange, I was troubled by your line on Echols re “whether his time in prison, and the support he received from Lori Davis, have enabled him to get a better education than he would have managed had all of this not happened to him.”

    I can’t see how, in its current form, that sentence can be interpreted other than as suggesting that his education may have been an upside of his incarceration. That proposition I find appalling. Firstly, I cannot imagine there can be any plus to the horrific experience of being imprisoned, especially for so long, and even more especially when wrongfully convicted! Secondly, who knows what course Echols might have chosen for himself, had he not been imprisoned? He seemed a bright, creative and charismatic guy. He might well have been capable of getting himself an education, and a whole lot more. But we can never know, and neither can he. I don’t see the point of your comment, or how it relates to the film.

    One thing I was left wondering: how many other cases of wrongful imprisonment have been consigned silently to the past, or are ongoing, in the absence of a celebrity-supported and promoted campaign such as that which freed the Memphis Three?

    rolanstein

  2. Hi rolanstein. Thanks for the comments. I’ll take most of them just as comments, but I’ll answer your query about whether I was really “suggesting that his education may have been an upside of his incarceration”. Yes, I was! I don’t suggest it was worth his being incarcerated unjustly all those years, though. But it is amazing to me that many people imprisoned in horrendous circumstances find value in their imprisonment. I’m thinking of Holocaust survivors, Nelson Mandela, and the like. Now perhaps it is psychologically necessary for their recovery for them to find the good in what seems to me and presumably to most people an unmitigatedly dreadful experience; nevertheless, they do say it, and who am I to say it isn’t so. I actually don’t know how Echols views the entirety of his prison experience, but the interview linked to in my review suggests he is not bitter and found a spirituality in jail. I’m certainly curious, as my extra reading suggests he had a pretty rough trot in his early years, and he describes his origins as “white trash”. Before all of this happened to him, he had dropped out of school, and spent time in custodial mental health “care”. Perhaps he would have escaped poverty and ill health, got an education and made a life for himself. As you say, we can’t know this, and nor can he. The point of the comment is that for me, that’s what the heart of the story was: these boys’ lost years, and the lives they now face. All of the facts of the case led me to speculate about it, and it is an inadequacy of the film that it barely addresses what I believe is a most natural and sympathetic curiosity.

    Your final comment is most apposite and expressed also by Echols himself in an interview in the weekend press.

    Cheers,
    Karen

  3. Hi again, Karen.

    Of course, no argument re people managing to transcend horrific experiences such as the Holocaust etc to find grace or something positive in extreme adversity.

    My issue was with your sentence as it read. All that was required to head off the sorts of concerns I had was the simple qualifier you have now added above: “I don’t suggest it was worth his being incarcerated unjustly all those years, though.”

    Re: “The point of the comment is that for me, that’s what the heart of the story was: these boys’ lost years, and the lives they now face. All of the facts of the case led me to speculate about it, and it is an inadequacy of the film that it barely addresses what I believe is a most natural and sympathetic curiosity.”

    With respect, I don’t think your ‘heart of the story’ is much of a concern of the movie, which is really an investigative doco that attempts to get to grips with what really happened and whodunnit. Those are surely the filmmakers’ overriding concerns.

    I would contend, therefore, that an investigation of the personal perspectives of the three accused is outside the parameters of West of Memphis, and that the absence of same cannot justly be declared an “inadequacy of the film”. Indeed, I wonder whether the three were prepared to be interviewed along such lines, or even whether this was precluded under the terms of their release. Both unknowns would need to be established one way or the other before I would be prepared to make a call on whether the sort of criticism you are making here has any validity.

    Cheers
    rolanstein

  4. I would love to catch this film. The more I hear about this cause and this project, Im so much more curious. I love the soundtrack too. Henry Rollins talks about why he got involved and his interview blew me away. http://aol.it/ZTnVyb. Amazing.

  5. Thanks for the link, Brittany. That’s a clip from the film, which you should definitely go and see. But I warn you, you may be hooked and end up chasing the other docos and Echols’s book too!

    Rolanstein, the original criticism I made was that the documentary lacked focus, and while I take your point that a narrative that unfolds further even as it is being told can become unwieldy, I don’t think it’s an invalid criticism. It’s the job of the filmmakers to keep it tight and to give it its full import. I also don’t think it’s invalid for me to suggest what might have helped them to do that. Now you might disagree, and I acknowledge it’s only my opinion, but I think our readership is sophisticated enough to know that when they read a review, it’s always just the reviewer’s opinion, and I don’t need to bang on about it too much. It’s not the reviewer’s concern why a filmmaker doesn’t do something (my own speculation is that Misskelley and Baldwin may have had more to do with the other documentary makers, Berlinger and Sinofsky, and were not so available to Berg), it’s the effect it has on the finished film.

  6. Karen,

    No argument from me re the sophistication of the readership and a reviewer’s opinion being just that. Understood, of course.

    I really had only two points I wanted to make – the first, and most important, about ‘that sentence’. You’ve qualified it now; I maintain, though, that that qualifier needed to be made in the review to ensure your stance was not misinterpreted. I’m not sure whether you agree or not, but my agenda was not to persuade – just to alert you to an interpretative possibility I thought might have bothered you as it did me.

    I have to disagree with your assertion that “it’s not the reviewer’s concern why a filmmaker doesn’t do something”. I think it’s the reviewer’s business to consider the parameters of the film as it stands, and to factor that into any criticism. Ditto the availability of material that might have enhanced the film, but was not included. But I’ve already made these points, so if you don’t take them I guess we’ve gotten to that old “agree to disagree” impasse.

    I am with you, by the way, just in case I didn’t make it clear previously, that interview footage of the Three giving a personal take on their incarceration and the whole sorry business would have been a most interesting addition to the movie. Indeed, it might have made for a very different doco from the one we saw! That gets to the guts of my point: I say a reviewer should review what’s there, not what they think shoulda been (and I mean that to be taken in the context of the rest of this paragraph – ie: with the parameter and availability points)!

    However, it’s a bit of a grey area for a reviewer, and I don’t mean to be hard and fast about it. There have been many times when reviewing that I’ve had to hold back from donning my script editor’s hat, and a few more on which I’ve gone ahead and made some red pen observations anyway. Comes with the territory.

    Cheers
    rolanstein

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