Title: West of Memphis
Director(s): Amy Berg
Release Year: 2012
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Many films and other forms of media have already tackled the case of the West Memphis Three (WM3, as I’ll refer to them from now on), and it’s not surprising why there has been such an interest. For one, the case quickly went into the surreal with the belief that the murders of three 8-year-old boys were cult-related. Then upon re-evaluation of the evidence, it seems obvious that the WM3 were never actually guilty of anything. So the real question is, who is guilty, and how were the three eight year-old boys murdered? West of Memphis attempts to get to the bottom of this, but in actuality, it’s something that may never be known, and that’s why the film doesn’t push far beyond its concrete evidence. Because of this, the film plays as the most complete and detailed review of the case of the WM3, taking almost 150 minutes to conclude a story that may never really be over.
There are so many twists and turns within this case, but a lot of the impact from the film will come from the portrayal of the justice system in Arkansas, and the way the case is handled, even until its very end. Spoiling the film would be a disservice, because those twists and moments of genuine disdain are the crux of West of Memphis. There are a lot of hard facts given, but the way the story unfolds is like any great crime thriller. There’s a bad guy, there’s the hero (or heroine, in this case), and there’s the morality of the narrative mixed in between each surprise. The fact that the case goes quickly from three kids found dead in a river, hogtied and sexually mutilated, to convicting three teenagers for satanic rituals, demonstrates just why this case has spawned so much attention. It’s a story that shows how, in a time of crisis, people want answers, no matter how ridiculous or wrong they might be. And maybe some of the explanations for elements of the case might be just as ridiculous, but that initial jump to the surreal is why this film (and case) speaks volumes about humanity and what we will do for justice.
And justice is ironically enough the theme of West of Memphis, even if justice isn’t doled out in the way it should be. The director, Amy Berg, is not a stranger to this notion of justice, as her previous feature-length documentary, Deliver Us From Evil, was another harrowing tale of how someone can get away with a crime for many years and never truly be dealt justice. How this sort of thing happens is always interesting, and Berg is great at interweaving archival footage and masked interviews to prove a point. Berg is not afraid to point fingers and accuse someone of being the guilty party, and while she doesn’t state outright who really murdered the three kids in West Memphis, she does spend a lot of time on who she believes did it. Every piece of evidence is used effectively to portray who she thinks did it, even if the jury from 1994 looked at this same evidence and came to a different conclusion.
Using the phrase ‘West Memphis Three’ is probably incorrect to apply here, as the film chooses to focus solely on Damien Echols (the perceived ‘head’ of the three convicted teens) for the majority of its runtime. That’s not a fault with the movie though, because the person who actively works to help prove Echols’s innocence is his girlfriend, Lorri Davis. Rallying support from celebrities such as Peter Jackson, Eddie Vedder, and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, and going back through the several trials and pieces of evidence, she’s able to prove without a shadow of a doubt that Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin are more than innocent; they can’t even be linked to the murders. Because of that alone, Amy Berg manages to capitalize on the apparent miscarriage of justice, and create one of the best depictions of the case of the WM3 to date.
There’s already fictional films in the works based on this case, but I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more robust, detailed look into this horrific and surprising series of events. West of Memphis is the complete package, having the twists that one would expect from a Hollywood crime thriller, while still rarely ever straying from the facts. When Berg chooses to step away from what is already known and make some judgments of her own, she utilizes evidence and archived footage to back up her thoughts. As a documentary filmmaker, it’s evident that Berg has a passion for seeing justice properly served, and if West of Memphis shows us anything most prominently, it’s that Berg is more than alright with bringing her own thoughts into the film rather than presenting the facts alone.