AFI Review: WEST OF MEMPHIS

Brian reviews the latest addition to the West Memphis Three canon. 

AFI Review: WEST OF MEMPHIS

Having seen all three of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's terrific Paradise Lost films, read two books (Mara Leveritt's Devil's Knot and the trashy Blood Of The Innocents) and exhausted WM3.org, I wasn't sure what Amy Berg's West Of Memphis could bring to the table. Apart from maybe a few Peter Jackson fans who had somehow managed to remain ignorant of the case for the past 20 years and would check it out because he is one of its producers (and talking heads), who exactly was this for? Anyone with an interest in the case would have seen at least one of the documentaries, if not all, and the three men are now free thanks to an obscure legal maneuver, so who is the film meant for?

If you are among those who are unaware of the case, let me give the briefest of summaries. In May of 1993, three eight year old boys were murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas. About a month later, three teenagers were arrested for the crime, with the alleged ringleader, Damien Echols, taking the bulk of the accusations because he dressed weird and had a fondness for heavy metal, horror and occult symbols. See, for this very religious part of the country, a teenager who listened to Metallica and drew pentagrams on his notebooks was obviously a Satan worshiper, and killed the three kids as part of a sacrifice. A lengthy trial found life sentences for Damien's "accomplices," Jessie Miskelley (a mentally handicapped 17 year old who gave a "confession" riddled with inaccuracies and contradictions after being questioned for hours - unrecorded - by West Memphis police) and Jason Baldwin, while Echols received the death sentence, all despite the lack of a single shred of solid evidence that even put them in the area, let alone proved they were guilty of the crime itself. After hearing about the case, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky made a documentary for HBO called Paradise Lost, and pretty much ever since the day it aired, a huge movement, aided by some major celebrities (Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, etc), has been focused on setting the boys free and finding the real killer or killers. Last year, a rather backhanded victory was achieved - the three men, having spent half their lives in prison, were able to plead guilty (but maintain their innocence) in exchange for a sentence of time served. Today they are free (under a strict probation), and DNA evidence continues to point the finger at Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murdered boys.

But I knew all of that going in, and with the film being produced right around the same time as Berlinger/Sinofsky's Paradise Lost 3, I was worried that this would just be 150 minutes of old news. Luckily, as it turns out, there is still some rather fascinating information that had not been covered by the other docs or existing books. Most of it comes near the end of this mostly chronological account of the case dating back to the 1993 murders, but there are a few good nuggets throughout that will keep seasoned veterans from being bored as the murders, the arrests, the trials and subsequent "Free The West Memphis Three" movement are covered. There's a pretty heartbreaking scene where we see that Jessie had a half dozen witnesses swearing that he was at a wrestling match in the next county (there's even a sign-in sheet with his signature!), but since his forced/false confession had already been introduced at the trial, none of the jury paid any attention to it - apparently, not a single one of them even wrote it down in their juror notebooks. I had heard of the wrestling alibi before, but seeing these people on the stand, providing his alibi for when he was supposedly involved in a heinous crime, is truly heartbreaking and enraging.

But the bulk of the new info is focused on Hobbs, who has since divorced the biological mother of Stevie Branch (one of the murdered boys) and does little to throw suspicion off himself with his dickish behavior and refusal to answer questions directly. The not-very-bright guy sued Natalie Maines from the Dixie Chicks for defamation of character a couple years ago, which proved to be a huge boon to the WM3 defense team. Under oath in his attempt to score a payday (he lost, by the way), he was forced to answer questions regarding his whereabouts the night that the boys were murdered (something that the West Memphis police never bothered to do) and how a strand of hair that matches his DNA ended up inside one of the knots that were used to hogtie the boys. Most of these questions are met with silence or "if you say so" type answers, with Hobbs claiming he can't remember anything. Other damning issues from his past are brought up throughout the film, including an assault on his previous wife, and allegations of molestation of his daughter. In other words, Hobbs does not come off very well in the movie.

And that is something I was slightly put off by. Sure, the DNA evidence is pretty eye-opening, but the shoelaces used to tie the boys were their own, so it's not completely unreasonable that his hair would have been on the kid's shoes, being that they lived together. We also hear a few people say they heard his brother admit that he had done it, and neighbors saying they saw him in the area that night, but to me these sort of witnesses always strike me as people trying to get their 15 minutes in the spotlight. After all this time, all this attention, all of a sudden now you remember that he changed his clothes that night? I can't even remember what I myself wore even 18 days ago, so the idea that someone would be blessed with a memory of a guy's outfit from 18 years ago is a bit fishy.

I also couldn't help think of Paradise Lost 2, which similarly tried pointing the finger at Mark Byers, another stepfather to a murdered boy (Christopher Byers). As anyone who knows the case can tell you, Byers is a colorful, possibly insane attention whore with a flare for the theatrical (ranting and setting fires in the area where the kids were killed, shooting pumpkins that he imagines to be the WM3, etc), but I never truly believed he was their killer. Besides, the whole thing started because the three teens were "weird", so to point the finger at Byers (who also didn't have any evidence against him) for being a loon was just sad irony. Even though PL2 ends with Byers passing his lie detector tests, and the rest of the film is just as compelling as the original, it still hurts the film as a whole. Thus, I couldn't help but wonder if Amy Berg and her team are running into the same issue here; while there's certainly a strong case for Hobbs being involved, if a year from now some piece of evidence comes along that positively identifies anyone else as the killer, West Of Memphis will be left with egg on its cinematic face.

The film actually works best when it focuses on the personal lives of the three men, making me wish that there were more of them in the 150 minute runtime. Lorri Davis was a supporter who later became Echols' wife, and we hear a few of their weekly phone calls and see them shopping together after he was set free. The case has gotten so bogged down in DNA evidence, appeals and local politics, it's nice to see the real people involved, and the toll it has taken on them. And I wish there was more - in the post-film Q&A with Berg (who came off as a bit snotty, actually* - I caught her actually rolling her eyes at someone's question), we learned that Jason dreams of being a lawyer, but can't as long as he is a convicted murderer as far as the courts are concerned. I would have rather had a few scenes about this instead of beating us over the head with Hobbs' inconsistent alibi for the evening. At times, the film feels like its creators couldn't decide if it should be a Dateline style investigative piece, or an account of a very sad case and how it has ruined the lives of both its victims and its alleged perpetrators.

So while it's a good film, and worth a look, I'm not sure it did enough to make a case for why it was needed in addition to the West Memphis information that we already had. It was known that Berlinger and Sinofsky were working on a third film as far back as 2004, and it was released theatrically last year in time for an Oscar consideration (which is earned, though it lost to Undefeated), so even if their goal was to beat them to the punch, they didn't quite pull it off, with their film hitting festivals now in advance of its Christmas Day (?) theatrical bow. And again, the finger-pointing, while interesting and most likely warranted, may prove to be ill-advised someday, just as Berlinger and Sinofsky discovered with Paradise Lost 2 (though Byers doesn't seem to hold a grudge; he's a big participant in PL3, which also cast some suspicion at Hobbs, albeit not to this extent). If it brings more attention to the ongoing legal case (Echols and the others are working to clear their names entirely), then it's great - but those new fans would be wise to immediately check out the more thorough, already existing films on the story.

*Found THIS later - for the life of me I cannot understand why someone would block the Paradise Lost team from interviewing certain people, as if having the better cast list for her documentary was more important than helping those people get closure regarding the senseless deaths of their loved ones.

Brian Collins's photo About the Author: Brian, aka BC, has been watching horror movies since the age of 6, and twenty years later decided to put it to good use, both as a writer for Bloody-Disgusting as well as launching his own site, Horror Movie A Day, which Roger Ebert once read and misunderstood the points that were being made.
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