Sundance 2012: ‘West of Memphis’ heartwrenching and triumphant, but no victory lap
Directed by Amy Berg
You might think you know the story of the West Memphis Three as it was covered extensively by the press and the Paradise Lost documentary trilogy throughout the last 18 years. Then comes along West of Memphis which brings to the table a closer, more intensely personal reading of the infamous tragedy that devastated so many lives but brought to light how political ambition, pride and ego can so easily corrupt the United States justice system.
Director Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil) encapsulates and condenses the length of the case by first presenting the facts which were previously the most widely known about the case. In 1993, three little boys were murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas. The bodies appeared to be hogtied, tortured and their privates mutilated in what was believed to be a satanic ritual. Three local teenagers who were branded by their community as outsiders were arrested and convicted. It was a closed case that the documentary Paradise Lost cast doubt on. At two and a half hours long the film never feels overly long or rushed It does recap much of the material from Paradise but does so swiftly and deftly.
The doc is obviously biased and sensitive to the would be perpetrators Damien Echols, Jesse Miskelly and Jason Baldwin who instead have become victims. However, it provides ample justification by adding even more evidence that points away from them. Additional interviews from major witnesses who initially testified against the boys apologize for lying and concrete DNA evidence is identified from the crime scene that is definitively not theirs. Shockingly, the basis of why this crime blew up in the media is taken out. The boy’s genitals were most likely missing missing because the creek they were thrown in was crawling with snapping turtles whose bite marks were mistaken as torture. This along with other revelations shake the very foundation of the original case. It would risk being a talking head doc if it weren’t for how impassioned the new investigators, the Three, their loved ones and the network of supporters feel about getting to the truth.
Interest in the case continued on in the media seemingly because of the long list of celebrities that believed that the boys were falsely imprisoned. Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins and director Peter Jackson all number among those who contributed monetarily or publicly spoke on behalf of the incarcerated. Echols was a defiant and rebellious teen who flipped off cameras while on trial. Given the nature of the crime, this behavior was damning at the time and outrageous to people following the case at home. It’s But there was something about him in particular that people continue to connect to. Musician and poet Henry Rollins explains that a weird, Goth kid who wrote down dark thoughts and listened to disturbing music “Could have been me, could have been anyone.” To say that the celebrity support or true crime reporting were what kept the case going would be to seriously belie the actual love that fueled the persistence to pursue the truths that would set them free.
Hearing about how this case touched artists like Rollins is one thing but it is something much more striking to hear from the woman who has loved Echols and worked tirelessly to organize and galvanize protests on his behalf. Lorris Davis is a woman who never stopped believing in Echols innocence. She and Damien corresponded over a long period of time, corresponding by letter hundreds of time before they were married. So lovely is it that they wrote to each other about novels and the nature of time that one almost forgets they could barely see each other- only 3 hours per week. Davis is the rock of this film, her faith in Echols solid and unwavering. Echols is seen here as an eloquent, well read man who waxes philosophical about love and how the nature of time should concentrate on the now.
In direct contradiction to this relationship is the toxic marriage of Pam and Terry Hobbs. Terry reportedly (as seen from interviews, neighbors and family members) regularly beat and even molested his stepchildren. His stepson Stevie was one of the children murdered. The cops never interviewed him. How could someone so close be overlooked? His own family refers to the “Hobbs Family Secret.” The movie delves deep into what might have been the motivations and opportunities Hobbs had at the time of the murders. All investigators, prosecutors and the judge from the first trial hold hold firm to their assertions about what they see as the righteous conviction of all three men. They will not let it go or take the new evidence seriously. It takes a new official to see things anew.
Memphis is in turns about grief, injustice and loyalty but also a moving portrait of three men that despite their past circumstances have not become embittered and stuck on how life has been so unfair. They are moving on even if the case and a community is still firmly entrenched in the past.