The saga of the “West Memphis Three” reaches a thrilling if somewhat anticlimactic conclusion in “West of Memphis,” a documentary financed by Peter “Lord of the Rings” Jackson and directed by Amy Berg.
Berg, who directed the damning Catholic priests and child abuse documentary “Deliver Us from Evil,” pulls together a riveting story built on one of the most notorious murder cases of recent history. In 1993, three very young boys were murdered and dumped in a ditch in West Memphis, Arkansas. The West Memphis Three, socially outcast teenagers, were caught, tried and convicted and spent nearly two decades in prison despite rampant evidence of medical examiner incompetence and police and prosecutorial misconduct.
The case was kept alive and in the public eye largely on the strength of a trio of documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Their “Paradise Lost,” films inspired ongoing media interest in a case that seemed both sensational – allegations of ritual sexual abuse and Satanic/occult murder – and closed thanks to “the finality of judgment.”
One of the teens confessed. Witnesses came forward alleging one of the boys, aptly-named Damien, was into the occult. The state of the bodies seemed so awful that only devil worshippers could be responsible, or so the theory went.
“We’ve got a story that is very, very believable,” one interview subject recalls hearing. “So believable, it’s almost perfect.”
That story, manipulated by the local police and trumpeted by an ambitious prosecutor, is the one lead they pursued. It worked and won convictions.
Berg, working with a private investigator Jackson and longtime companion Fran Walsh hired, interviewing a retired FBI profiler Jackson & Co. put on the payroll, and interviewing the victims’ families (who were, the closing credits tell us, compensated for the interviews), weaves this tortured tale into a compelling narrative that has twists and turns, blind alleys and lots of interviews with Damien Echols in his jail cell.
Jackson appears on camera, talking about the steps they took to immerse themselves in the case. Musician Eddie Vedder got deeply involved. And Johnny Depp. The “WM3” became a cause celebre among the celebre. And then Natalie Maines of The Dixie Chicks got sucked into it and played an even bigger part in casting doubt on the guilt of the Three.
It’s a fine summation of this complicated story, one that focuses heavily on Echols and his sweeping declarations about the state of justice in Arkansas and America. Enduring almost 18 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit entitles him to that. And to the fact that Echols and a woman he met by mail and married while in prison, Lorri Davis, are producers on the film.
But for all the ebb and flow of this saga, the TV news footage and snippets of newspaper stories about the case sampled here, the omission of more than a passing mention of the “Paradise Lost” films robs “West of Memphis” of some of its credibility. If anybody anywhere knows anything about this case, it’s because of those two filmmakers – Berlinger and Sinofsky. They wouldn’t agree to be interviewed here?
Maybe they were concerned that Jackson’s money would allow him and Berg to take credit at the end when they haven’t been there since the beginning.
Which is the worst thing you can say about this otherwise righteous, if somewhat star-struck film. The “Paradise Lost” guys moved the ball down the field, all the way to the end zone. Now, a new owner and his backup quarterback are spiking the ball.
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content and some language
Cast: Damien Echols, Lorri Davis, Holly Ballard, Mark Byers, Terry Hobbs, Peter Jackson, Eddie Vedder
Credits: Directed by Amy Berg, written by Amy Berg and Billy McMillin. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 2:26