TIFF 2012: ‘West Of Memphis’ an epic tale of crowdsourced justice

West of Memphis

Written by Billy McMillin and Amy Berg
Directed by Amy Berg
USA, 2012

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost is frequently, and rightfully, cited as one of the most powerful and influential documentaries ever made, both for the real-life repercussions of its advocacy, and for its use of the documentary format to immerse us in a toxic political and social culture that was willing to sacrifice justice if an easier resolution seemed viable. Nearly two full decades since Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley were found guilty of murdering three young boys in cold blood, filmmaker Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil) offers her own take on the case, one which adopts a radically different formal approach from Berlinger’s landmark film, while acknowledging how instrumental that film was in galvanizing the movement that ultimately freed the men in question after 18 years of unjust incarceration.

The facts of the case, for the uninitiated: in May of 1993, three second-grade boys were found dead in West Memphis, Arkansas. They had been stripped naked, and were covered in ghastly injuries. Not long afterwards, Echolls, Baldwin and Misskelley were charged, then found guilty, mostly on the basis of a contradictory “confession” by Misskelley, whose mental capacities are generally acknowledged (including by the boy’s father) to be below average. After the release of Paradise Lost, a national movement to get the men freed began in earnest, with musicians responding with particular intensity thanks to Echols being stigmatized at the trial for being a social outcast and an avowed metal fan. Finally, after innumerable legal setbacks, the three were freed in August of 2011, thanks to a particularly devious legal maneuver devised by prosecutors: the three entered an “Alford plea,” which is technically an admission of guilt, but one that allows them to simultaneously maintain their innocence, while also preventing a retrial, thus sparing the state of Arkansas from future embarrassments, not to mention potential lawsuits.

Paradise Lost adopted a passionately subjective approach, using Metallica’s “Sanitarium” as its theme (a favorite of Echols’s), placing us in the shoes of these three then-boys as they faced an injustice they could barely fathom. West of Memphis is a more conventional film in many ways, but that’s not to say it’s less effective. Talking heads dominate – be they victims’ family members, celebrity supporters/financiers (producer Peter Jackson, Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, Henry Rollins), and of course the Three themselves, particularly the eloquent Echols – and Berg generally opts for a linear approach as she charts the case from inception to pained “conclusion.” This approach is less emotionally devastating by design, but it allows for a clear-headedness and inclusiveness that has its own rewards. Berg even manages to take the Berlinger/Sinofky films (briefly) to task, noting that the second film in the series fingered John Mark Byers as the likely culprit; Byers was later ruled out, even becoming one of the Three’s most outspoken supporters.

The greatest advantage of having a single documentary that spans the entire length of the case (with the crucial, sad exception, of course, of the true killer or killers bring charged) is that it allows us to get a better grasp of just who the Three are, how they’ve evolved, and what freedom means to them. Echols is the most familiar, and his evolution from the spiteful kid grinning outside the courtroom to the wizened married man who sees no future in the place that condemned him remains touching. Baldwin and Misskelley also get their due, though, with the former emerging as a bit of an unsung hero for his remarkable feats of principle. While the true perpetrator remains at large – though West of Memphis certainly does its best within extra-legal limits to identify a culprit – Berg’s movie offers an epic, nuanced take on “crowdsourced” justice and individual bravery that manages to transcend our own possible familiarity with the players.

Simon Howell

West of Memphis @ TIFF




Add Comment


10 Different Types of Financial Aid
Top 10 Richest American Idols
V-Moda Crossfade Wireless
The 5 Most Expensive Wireless Headphones: Ultimate Auditory Clarity
Business man watching business go bankrupt
25 Iconic Companies that Filed for Bankruptcy
7 Different Types of Roller Coasters
7 Surprising Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Playing Video Games
Females acting
7 Different Types of Acting Methods (Plus Acting Classes for Beginner Actors)
Accordion
17 Different Types of Accordion
8 Different Types of Cantaloupes
5 Different Types of Maple Syrup
Pâté filled in a jar and spread on a toast
11 Different Types of Pate
16 Different Types of Apples
19 Different Types of Construction Vehicles
Fire Truck with Warm Yellow Lights
9 Different Types of Fire Trucks
22 Different Types of Forklifts for Indoor and Outdoor Work
Trains
17 Different Types of Trains
54 Different Types of Sports Played (Individual and Team Sports)
15 Different Types of Goggles
13 Different Types of Dumbbells
15 Awesome Alternatives to Skateboards (Plus Interesting Facts)
16 Different Types of Technology
man holding smartphone with vintage case
11 Types of Cell Phone Cases and Covers to Protect Your Expensive Smartphone
Black and Red Tablet Covers
8 Types of Tablet Cases for Kids, Protection, and Convenience
Camera, lenses and other photography equipments.
45 of the Best Online Camera Stores for the Perfect Pics