Film review: Stunning ‘West of Memphis’ Doc Advocates for Justice

West of Memphis 1Nearly 20 years have passed since the horrific murders of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark. After the bodies of Steven Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers were discovered in a shallow muddy creek on May 6, 1993, the stories of their deaths and of the three young men subsequently convicted of their murders have stayed before the public through documentaries, books and countless print, broadcast and online news articles.

Now comes West of Memphis, a stunning documentary by Amy Berg (who directed and wrote the Oscar-nominated Deliver Us From Evil) that provides a good recap, particularly in recounting the efforts of celebrities and others to free the so-called “West Memphis Three” – Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. – from prison (and Echols from Arkansas’ death row). After more than 18 years they were eventually released in 2011 under Alford pleas that placed them in the unusual legal position of maintaining their innocence while still pleading guilty to the crimes of which they were accused. That caused consternation among their supporters and detractors, and the fight over exoneration for the trio continues.

West of Memphis 2The documentary was screened in January 2012 at Nashville’s Belcourt Theatre as part of its involvement with the Sundance Festival USA initiative (click here to read a great Adam Gold Nashville Scene interview with Berg, Echols and other principals published on the day of that showing). Now in its post-Sundance version the documentary will hit the Regal Green Hills Stadium 16 on Friday.

Berg was brought into the project by Oscar-winning filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh (of The Lord of the Rings trilogy fame). Jackson and Walsh first made contact in 2005 with Lorri Davis, Echols’ wife, and later paid anonymously for defense investigative expenses aimed at providing evidence to overturn the West Memphis Three’s convictions.

West of Memphis 3The film Berg directs (co-written with Billy McMillin) is a strong advocate for justice, arguing that the victims, their families and the West Memphis Three were denied that when Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were arrested, tried and convicted by a legal system their supporters believe was more concerned with expediency than justice. A questionably obtained confession, a dubious “satanic cult” angle, overlooked or arguably misinterpreted evidence, witness statements that were later recanted, possible prosecutorial and juror misconduct as well as other troubling elements presented in the film build a strong case against the notion that the defendants – who ranged from 16 to 18 years of age at the time of the crimes – were given either a fair trial or that they deserved to be tried in the first place.

West of Memphislike the engrossing Paradise Lost trilogy from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky that preceded it – also points toward a possible suspect for the killings in the person of Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Branch. The doc certainly paints Hobbs in a bad light, but if there’s any criminal case where we’ve been strongly reminded about the dangers of presuming guilt because of someone’s personality or past actions it’s this one.

West of Memphis 4While the parents of Moore continue to believe that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley killed their son, the mother of Branch, Pam Hicks (who divorced Hobbs, and is played by Reese Witherspoon in the upcoming Atom Egoyan film version of Mara Leveritt’s 2002 book on the case, “Devil’s Knot”) and the father of Byers, John Mark Byers, now believe in the threesome’s innocence. Their painful path over the past two decades is also chronicled in this film, which gives it more balance – while the West Memphis Three are likely victims of injustice, it’s always important to remember the three young boys whose lives were so cruelly ended through violence in a watery ditch.

Berg doesn’t let us forget that terrible crime scene, showing shattering and gruesome video and photos of the bodies as a reminder of the horrible murders at the center of a tragedy that has directly and indirectly claimed many victims. But there’s a hopeful end to this film, showing Echols and his wife (producers of the doc along with Berg, Walsh and Jackson) happily going about their lives following his release, as well as glimpses of Baldwin and Misskelley spending time with family and friends after being incarcerated for nearly two decades. There is much in West of Memphis to be sad, and even angry, about, but thanks to those involved there are also moments when one’s faith in human perseverance and compassion are bolstered.

West of Memphis 5West of Memphis (sonyclassics.com/westofmemphis) opens in Nashville this Friday (March 1) exclusively at the Regal Green Hills Stadium 16, 3815 Green Hills Village Dr. Rated R for disturbing violent content and some language, 146 min. Directed by Amy Berg, written by Berg and Billy McMillin.

West of Memphis 6

 

*Photos by Chris Pizzello © Associated Press, Olivia Fougeirol, Jeff Dailey, Lisa Waddell © The Commercial Appeal, Robert Cohen © The Commercial Appeal, Michael McMullan © The Commercial Appeal, Dave Darnell © The Commercial Appeal and Richard Gardner © The Commercial Appeal courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).