Friday, March 15, 2013

Review: West of Memphis

The case of the West Memphis Three has been a cause celebre since it first made headlines in 1996. In 1993, the bodies of three young missing boys were found in a creek, their hands bound and bodies mutilated. After a trial that captivated the state of Arkansas, three teenagers (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley) were found guilty of murder; Echols was given the death penalty, while the other two were given life sentences.

In 1996, the filmmaking duo of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky released the feature-length documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. The film was a critical hit that ended up being the first in a trilogy of films focused on the inconsistencies and troubling police coercion that have plagued the case of these murdered kids, which seemed to point at three young men being found guilty of a heinous crime that they didn't commit.

What West of Memphis, the newest doc to visit the case, has managed to successfully do is take the nearly nine hours of story that Berlinger and Sinofsky has given us and condense it into a more manageable 150 or so minutes. If that sounds a bit flippant, you've never sat through 9 hours of crime footage involving murdered children.

Amy J. Berg directs this documentary. Known best for the Oscar nominated doc Deliver Us From Evil (1996), based on the history of sexual abuse coverups perpetrated by the Catholic Church, she is a director not known for shying away from casting a light on the wrong-doings of authority figures in our society. Here we are given evidence that seemingly grows from scene to scene of a police force more interested in jailing three long-haired kids than finding the real killer.

As someone who grew up in a small town, nothing seen here is really shocking. Disheartening and depressing, sure, but telling the viewer that police forces better equipped to hand out "rolling stop" citations would somehow mishandle a major crime that attracts media attention shouldn't come as a surprise. Hell, the tape recordings of shady jailhouse confessions had barely stopped rolling before cops were fighting each other over who would be the one to release it to the local press.

If there is a major failing with West of Memphis it is the loss of focus halfway through the film. More and more it became clear that the film's producer Peter Jackson (the Lord of the Rings trilogy) would become a major character, whether necessary to the story or not. Also, I like Pearl Jam as much as the next guy, but how many times do I need Eddie Vedder to pop up to offer such nuggets of information as, "We would send them Skittles," or shown at a benefit concert performing Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changing"?

West of Memphis offers a fascinating glimpse into a justice system that managed to fail an entire community, with Berg continuing to showcase that she is one of cinema's finest documentarians of the dark corners of our everyday lives. If you can handle the moments of back-slapping and self-congratulation to be found in abundance, this film is well worth your time.

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