TIFF 2012: WEST OF MEMPHIS Review

     September 7, 2012

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This time last year TIFF held the world premiere of Paradise Lost 3, the latest chapter of the ongoing documentary series about the West Memphis Three, a group of teenagers (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley) who in 1993 were wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to either life in prison or death sentences. That was an odd film to watch at the time as the three men were finally set free mere weeks before the film festival following bizarre guilty pleas (while maintaining innocence), but the movie was completed too late to mention it.

It’s not a huge surprise that another documentary about the case would find its way to TIFF this year given the unexpectedly abrupt ending to the last Paradise Lost film. What is a bit odd is that this movie doesn’t come from Paradise Lost directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, but an entirely new team in producer Peter Jackson (nuff said) and director Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil). Viewed entirely on its own merits, West of Memphis is an intriguing overview of the case. It’s just not quite as resonant as the Paradise Lost series and it’s a real shame that those filmmakers weren’t allowed to properly conclude their series.  Hit the jump for my review.

west-memphis-threeAmy Berg’s crack at the story is designed to be consumed by viewers who have never heard of either the case or the previous movies. It opens with the unsettling child murders in Robin Hood Hills, West Memphis. Three young boys’ bodies were found mutilated and the authorities immediately claimed that there was sort of a Satanic bent to the crimes. The three teenagers Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were arrested primarily because they dressed in black and listened to strange music (and therefore must be part of a cult, right?). A false confession was forced out of the mentally deficient Misskelley and after a long painful trial, two of the boys were sentenced to death row while Echols received the death penalty. Even though it was a heinous miscarriage of justice, chances are the boys would have quietly been shuttled off to prison and never heard of again were it not for the documentary Paradise Lost that was filmed during the trial. Following its premiere on HBO, a groundswell movement popped up to free The West Memphis Three.

Of course, the US justice system isn’t exactly known for speed so this battle stretched on for years and years. Eventually Peter Jackson saw the documentary and personally financed a legal team to free the teens. We know this because Jackson is prominently featured in this new documentary, speaking about how he stepped up and pointed to evidence that had never been looked at in detail before. Now, there’s no denying that Jackson did play a role in the case, but having him as a central figure in his own film feels a little oddly self-serving. In fact, much of West Of Memphis awkwardly focuses on how celebrities like Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, and Natalie Maines helped draw attention to the West Memphis Three. Again, it’s not like that’s inaccurate, it just seems like an inappropriate topic to focus so much attention on given all the other intriguing aspects of the case.

west-of-memphis-movie-image-3Fortunately, Jackson did also grant access to the new evidence he dug up that never appeared in the previous documentaries. Some of this material like the revelation that the swamp the bodies were dumped in was a breeding ground for snapping turtles whose bite-patterns match the seemingly satanic wounds (dramatically shown in a live demonstration) or the DNA evidence, witness, and interview evidence linking one of the victims’ fathers to the crime (covered in Paradise Lost 3, but not as thoroughly) are fascinating additions to the tale. Likewise, Berg had the time and resources to interview the West Memphis Three immediately and months after their release, finally providing some sense of closure to the story following their bizarre and unexpected release. This new material does completely validate the existence of West of Memphis following the rather unsatisfyingly abrupt conclusion to Paradise Lost 3. It’s just a shame that it had to come wrapped up in so much familiar information and inappropriate celebrity worship.

Somewhere between Paradise Lost 3 and West of Memphis is a perfect conclusion to the Paradise Lost series. The former continues the intriguing reevaluation of previous films/evidence that made those docs so fascinating. The latter provides the peculiar sense of closure that was missing last year. It’s a shame that Jackson didn’t just team up with Berlinger and Sinofsky to delay part three and properly conclude the series. Who knows, perhaps there was a battle of egos. West of Memphis is certainly worth seeing if you’ve followed the case given the new material, it just lacks the intriguing ambiguity that made the Paradise Lost series so fascinating. However, if you’ve never heard of this case, West of Memphis is a strong entry point that covers the entire story from beginning to end. It’s not the same as following all the docs chronologically, but I supposed it’s reasonable for viewers to not want to spend 9+ hours on the story of three teens wrongfully accused of murdering children.

Rating: C (or if you’ve never seen the Paradise Lost movies: B)

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