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