In 1993, the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas was rocked by the discovery that three young boys had apparently been murdered in what was rapidly described as a ‘satanic ritual’. Stoked by national as well as local media, the moral panic surrounding the murders was so intense that the Arkansas judicial system felt obliged to secure the conviction of the only suspects it had, a group of three intensely alienated teenagers. The only problem is that Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin were innocent and it took their supporters eighteen years to set them free. Oscar-nominated documentarian Amy J. Berg’s West of Memphis chronicles the ups and downs of that eighteen-year struggle.
Lengthy as well as morally complex, West of Memphis begins by interviewing the parents of the victims. Carefully intercut with news footage from that period as well as some more detached commentary from people who happened to know the families, these interviews do an absolutely magnificent job of showing the anguish that continues to hang over both the families and their wider communities. Having struck this opening chord of sympathy for the victims, Berg shows how horrific the crimes truly were and how swiftly the Arkansas judicial system acted in order to secure a conviction. At the time, we are told, there was no doubt as to the teenagers’ guilt and everyone was happy to see them locked away.
Berg begins her attack on the conviction by exploring the somewhat unusual confession made by one of the three accused. Drawing on expert opinion as well as actual police recordings of the interview, Berg suggests that the confession may well have been secured through illegitimate means and thereby cracks open the surface of the case to reveal an Arkansas judicial system filled with ruthlessly ambitious politicians and cravenly incompetent investigators. From this point on, the film systematically dismantles every aspect of the prosecution’s case from the later-recanted witness testimonies, the overlooked alibis, the fictional murder weapon and the ritualistic elements that turn out to be due to the fact that snapping turtles got to the bodies before anyone found them.
Though undeniably well executed, this section of the film is somewhat redundant as it effectively retells the story told in the Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. However, while the Paradise Lost films followed the various appeals in something approaching real time and in incredible detail, West of Memphis has the luxury of being able to look back over an eighteen-year saga and fashion a single coherent and compelling narrative that could be presented to the Arkansas courts. Indeed, another peculiarity of West of Memphis is that it was funded by Peter Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh who took their Lord of the Rings millions and used them to hire a team of high-powered investigators who not only helped to destroy the original prosecution’s case but also shed new light on the identity of the real killer. Arguably the most surreal and compelling moment in the film comes when the entire American entertainment industry seems to come together in order to lure the film’s favoured suspect into a trap designed to get him to incriminate himself on film.
There is no denying that West of Memphis is a worthy film and that this worthiness is utterly undiminished by the fact that three very good documentaries have already been made about this case. Nor is there any denying that Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and all the other people working to free the West Memphis Three did a profoundly good thing by using their money and celebrity to help three unloved and unjustly convicted men from Arkansas. There is no denying any of these things and yet these things cannot entirely compensate for the fact that West of Memphis fails to offer us anything that we have not seen before. Hollywood has a fondness for documentaries designed to overturn miscarriages of justice and though certainly entertaining and occasionally compelling, this film never quite compares to either the exquisite ambiguity of Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans or the campaigning psychological complexity of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line.
As is often the case with documentaries, West of Memphis is improved by its home release as the DVD and Blu-ray formats allow the filmmakers to include extra material that fills in some of the blanks and pads out the film’s central argument. In this case, the extra materials include not only entire lines of argument and a comprehensive commentary track but also some interesting biographical pieces about one of the accused.