Review: West of Memphis / Cert: 15 / Director: Amy Berg / Screenplay: Amy Berg, Billy McMillin / Starring: Michael Baden, James Baldwin/ Release Date: Out Now
The case of the ‘West Memphis Three’ and the child murders in Arkansas in 1993 has already been covered in three documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky that helped in overturning one of the most heinous false imprisonments of recent times. So you may ask what the point of Amy Berg’s film is, and though it does have the faint whiff of a vanity project, it’s a more accessible account of the sheer awfulness of this whole situation and is very much a trip worth taking.
If you didn’t know the case, then prepare to be outraged. Three children were horribly abused, murdered and mutilated and found in a water-filled ditch in 1993. The resulting investigation amounted to the police asking who in town listened to heavy metal music and was a loner and then arresting them. Despite clearly leading one of them who was mentally challenged, the police got a confession and some other drug-addled teen testimony and Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were convicted and sentenced accordingly. The townspeople were satisfied that justice had been done. There were those though that were not convinced, those that smelled something fishy with the whole affair and this documentary chronicles their attempts to get a retrial and the new evidence that comes to light as time goes on over nearly 20 years.
The film is a lot less stark and more presented to entertain than the Paradise Lost documentaries. It runs for two hours and twenty minutes and clearly has an agenda to expose one of the great miscarriages of justice, unlike the Berlinger/Sinofsky films which seemed more content to just point the camera and let things play out. What is baffling about this case is that there are clearly a number of more obvious and immediate suspects available with DNA evidence too, and these were never pursued as local politics and the ineptitude of the Arkansas police took over. As the story goes on, more and more insidious local secrets are revealed with people going on record as to identify other potential culprits.
The film has a happy ending of course and if you go along with the way the story is told then it’s easy to get choked up when justice of a sort is done. Although the three are granted release, they are never given an apology or the opportunity to get compensation for their ordeal and that is what will stay with you long after the film has finished. A somewhat one-sided but very entertaining and compelling film.
Extras: Deleted Scenes / Commentary with Amy Berg, Damien Echols and Lorri Davis / Toronto International Film Festival: Red Carpet Q&A and Press Conference.