Film Review: West of Memphis

Amy Berg’s devastating documentary on the unjustly accused West Memphis Three and the massive, grueling, “crowd-sourced” battle for their freedom is both cool-headed and rabble-rousing; it sets a new standard for true-crime film inves

Without Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s trilogy of Paradise Lost documentaries, most of the world would never have heard of the West Memphis Three. But when all is said and done, Amy Berg’s impactful film might ultimately stand the test of time as the true document of the case and its hair-raising implications for justice in America.

The story that started it was horrific; another kind of tragedy followed soon after. In 1993, the bodies of three young boys were found in a ditch in West Memphis, Tennessee. Initial reports indicated that they had been sexually abused and mutilated. The police turned their investigation (primed by victims’ families and a community understandably enraged and looking for a target) on some other children, not much older than the victims. Teenagers Jesse Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols were charged with killing the three boys in a satanic ritual. The prosecution’s paper-thin case was little more than a coerced confession and Echols and Baldwin being into heavy metal. After some potentially planted evidence and laughably inexpert testimony on cults, the three were found guilty. Echols (the most charismatic of the three, he was considered the ringleader) was sentenced to death; the quieter Baldwin and Misskelly received life imprisonment.

Over a well-paced and information-dense two-and-a-half hours, Amy Berg (Deliver Us from Evil) delivers first a quick dissertation on the murders and trial before delving into the heart of the film: the almost two-decade-long investigation to prove the innocence of the boys called the West Memphis Three. The trio’s story took some time to catch fire, but was sparked by the first Paradise Lost (shot as an “America Undercover” episode for HBO but given limited theatrical release in 1996). Eventually it became clear that no matter how glaringly thin the state’s case against the WM3 was, their names could never be cleared without a great marshaling of manpower and resources. Lorri Davis, who met and married Echols while he was on death row, coordinated efforts with the help of celebrity backers like Henry Rollins, Patti Smith, Natalie Maines and Eddie Vedder. The appeal of the story to rebellious musicians is clear. (Rollins crisply notes that a railroaded smartass teen outcast like Echols “could have been me.”) But more surprising is the introduction of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh (also producers on this film), who secretly provided the necessary deep bank account and organizational dedication to the investigation.

What follows is something like a “CSI” episode in reverse, where the team of civilian experts—including legendary ex-FBI serial-killer profiler John Douglas—uses a mix of advanced DNA study and investigative scutwork to definitively take the prosecution’s case apart. In a more potentially controversial move, they and the film also build a strong case around a new person of interest: one of the victim’s stepfathers, Terry Hobbs, who was astonishingly never investigated the first time around.

There are times when the stylistics of the film resemble too much those of a network-TV true-crime news magazine (Erin Moriarty of “48 Hours” even shows up briefly), with all the filler footage of trains whistling through lonely fields and focusing so strongly on a sole villain (Hobbs) and protagonist (Echols, as Baldwin and Misskelly’s stories are barely covered). But there is little sensationalism here, with Echols pointing out that those who assumed another of the victims’ parents, Mark Byers, was guilty because he came off in the first two Paradise Lost films as a crazed religious fanatic, were guilty of the same prejudicial profiling that got him locked away. There is also little oversimplification. Although the film does include the release last year of the WM3—showing that on occasion justice can triumph, at least for those able to marshal the resources needed—it doesn’t pretend that their struggle is even close to over.

Given the density of information and large cast of characters involved, Berg has delivered an improbably impressive feat of real-life storytelling. She also shows that sometimes the good guys win, if three unsolved child murders and three more children’s ruined lives can be called winning.