‘West of Memphis’ is a captivating portrayal of a judicial system gone bad
Directed by Amy J. Berg
Written by Amy J. Berg and Billy McMillin
How many movies surround a character who has been wrongfully accused of any sort of heinous crime? Much like with the revenge thriller, there appears to be a definite interest with this type of plot, perhaps because most people, at several points in their lives, are declared or suspected of being the culprits of actions for which they are innocent. Their personal experiences do not necessarily compare with accusations treason, or theft or murder, yet the fact remains that nearly everyone has, at least once, felt the frustration off receiving the brunt of the blame for something someone else in fact did. Alfred Hitchcock made a career out of the idea, with terrific films such as The 39 Steps and North by Northwest. As the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction, and a real life story about innocent youths convicted of murder might sound like something out of a movie, but such convictions can happen every day. One of the most famous instances in North America is the story of the West Memphis Three: Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin.
The film, directed by Amy J. Berg and produced by Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame, is set in West Memphis, Arkansas and covers a period from the early 1990s up until the summer of 2011 when the three young men previously thought to be guilty of murder were exonerated. The trio was viewed as unorthodox in their demeanour and interests (depression in the case of one, especially low cognitive skills in the case of another, possible interest in satanic cults with regards to the entire group) and, when three young school boys were found dead in a small nearby river, their bodies having suffered significant harm, not to mention hints at sexual molestation, Jessie, Damien and Jason were quickly arrested and convicted of the crime. It was only after an extended period of time and a lot of effort on the part of loved ones, civil rights activists and even celebrities that each was was granted freedom.
West of Memphis is successful on several fronts. For one, anyone who is not familiar with the plight of the West Memphis Three (as was the case for this movie reviewer) will receive a comprehensive overview of the entire story in just 2 1/2 hours. Considering that the ordeal lasted close to 20 years with several twists, turns, new evidence coming to light and a continuously shifting cast of new suspects, that alone is quite a respectable accomplishment. There are other films which dwell on the exact same topic, the Paradise Lost series, although they consist of a trilogy and explore various other avenues about the overall story. Each was released at varying periods in the drawn out nightmare of the West Memphis Three and studies one aspect or another of the trial and its aftermath. The last thing this review intends to do for the reader is to dissuade he or she from seeking out the other movies, but suffice to say that West of Memphis is impressively thorough in its depiction of the entire ordeal and, for that same reason, it becomes and epic documentary. To pack so many angles to the investigation in such a thorough way as to first, create a cohesive narrative, and second, to avoid bogging down said narrative speaks to the passion and dedication of the filmmakers to provide the best possible version of the complete story.
There is a great deal more to West of Memphis than merely the competent juggling of details to weave a story. As story itself evolves it becomes increasingly obvious that the film has a fair bit to say about the judicial process which landed the trio of unfortunate youths in the slammer for nearly 18 years and some thoughts on the nature of human prejudice. What at first seemed like an open and shut case is eventually revealed as being a disheartening attempt on the part of individuals in positions in power (police, judge, etc) to simplify a complex situation, utilizing as their scapegoats youngsters who were by and large misunderstood and seen as peculiar. What astonishes is the number of eye witnesses to the whereabouts of the charged teenagers on the night of the murder accumulates rapidly, therefore making those involved in the prosecution appear all the more prejudice in their assessment of the case.
Which brings the discussion to the second of the major themes permeating throughout: humanity’s infuriating flaw of not looking past the surface level of what it does not understand and in many cases simply refuses to. Everyone has been guilty of shunning something or someone whom they could not categorize or, as the colloquial saying goes, ‘wrap their head around.’ When it transpires on as important and crucial a level as it evidently did in the tragedy of the West Memphis Three, the repercussions are expanded on a far greater scale. The fact of the matter is that the prejudice with which the prosecution studied the details of the case led to three men losing eighteen years of their lives. Even when light was shed on new evidence, including DNA based material, suggesting the culpability of different completely people, ones who nicely fit the dominant culture’s definition of what is considered normal, the state responded in halfhearted manner, not to mention at a snail’s pace. Unfortunately, such behaviours are what make people human. There is next to nothing to be done to change that facet of who people are. However, when such flagrant acts are widely exposed through effective means, such as documentaries the likes of West of Memphis, there is always a glimmer of hope to counteract these mistakes.
There are a few questions which arise as the story rolls along, such as how the wife of the man understood to be the prime suspect of 2012 did not speak out earlier in regards to his unworthy qualities as a father and a husband. Such a matter, along with other pertinent details, are only touched on briefly touched upon in West of Memphis. It speaks to how complex the entire saga is, that certain questions and potential side stories are only awarded fleeting screen time. Then again, it might also explain why there exists the aforementioned trilogy of movies Paradise Lost. Nevertheless, West of Memphis is a captivating documentary exposing a judicial process which reeked of poor judgement and a lack of an open mind from the very outset.