Movie Review: ‘West of Memphis,’ by Amy Berg, on ‘West Memphis Three’

December 25th, 2012

“West of Memphis,” a work of fierce documentary advocacy directed by Amy Berg (“Deliver Us From Evil”), follows the successful crusade to free three men convicted of murder 18 years ago in a sloppy, hysterical rush to justice.

Inspiring but infuriating, this impassioned 2 ½-hour film focuses on Damien Echols, the most articulate of the so-called West Memphis Three. Mr. Echols was given the death penalty, and the others — Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. — were sentenced to life in prison for the killings of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark., in 1993.

The film is inspiring because it has a semi-happy ending attached to a love story. Heading the campaign was Lorri Davis, a New York landscape architect who became incensed when she heard about the case in 1996 and began a prison correspondence with Mr. Echols that led to their marriage in 1999. Devouring books she supplied, Mr. Echols, who grew up in near poverty, became an erudite, self-educated man and a professed Buddhist. Ms. Davis and Mr. Echols are among the film’s producers. Finally, after a prolonged legal battle, the men were released in 2011.

A variation of the same drama is told in “The Central Park Five,” the recent documentary about five teenagers wrongly convicted of raping and beating a Central Park jogger in 1989. The two films are among the latest in a rash of documentaries that strongly emphasize the importance of DNA evidence in criminal cases.

“West of Memphis” is infuriating because, in the deal that was worked out, the State of Arkansas agreed to accept an Alford plea, whereby the defendants could assert their innocence and go free while still pleading guilty. The compromise saved face for the prosecution by acknowledging that there was enough evidence to convict them. Only one of the three, Mr. Baldwin, balked at agreeing to the deal.

Even more angering than the partial vindication is the film’s vision of unequal justice in America. The men might still be rotting away in prison, were it not for support from filmmakers like Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh (“Lord of the Rings”), who became involved and reached into their deep pockets, and celebrities like Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, Natalie Maines and Henry Rollins, who rallied around the cause. The film gives no statistics about the millions spent for legal and forensic expertise, but it was the kind of defense that only the rich can afford.

In this notorious case, initially documented in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s “Paradise Lost” film trilogy, Mr. Echols, Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Misskelley were poor, lost teenagers when they were convicted of killing the boys, Steven Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers, who were found dead in a creek. The lurid court case portrayed the crimes as a part of a satanic ritual carried out by alienated young men who dressed in black and listened to heavy-metal rock.

“West of Memphis” begins with a concise recapitulation of material from the “Paradise Lost” films, the second of which strongly insinuated that John Mark Byers, the raving, wild-eyed adoptive father of Mr. Byers, was the killer. In the new movie Mr. Byers, who in the earlier films ranted theatrically about Satanism and the West Memphis Three’s guilt, is shown outside the courtroom in 2011 proclaiming their innocence.

We hear an audio recording of the interrogation of Mr. Misskelley, who is mildly retarded and was apparently fed the answers that the prosecution wanted. Some of the most powerful evidence undermining the convictions arrives when the forensic team discovers that the wounds on the children’s bodies were inflicted by animals (probably turtles) after they had died.

“West of Memphis” points its finger at Terry Hobbs (the stepfather of Mr. Branch), who was identified in the third “Paradise Lost” film as the last person seen with the children. It details his history of domestic violence and includes late-breaking assertions by people who reported to a tip line that they had overheard Mr. Hobbs incriminating himself. (Mr. Hobbs has not been charged in the case.)

What also becomes uncomfortably clear is the eagerness of Arkansas politicians and justices to let this unsatisfying compromise be the end of the matter, once and for all. Even when the original judge, David Burnett, who is now a state senator, was presented with overwhelming evidence for a new trial, he refused to reconsider the case.

It remained for the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2010 to order a lower court to decide whether new DNA evidence might exonerate the three. The original prosecutor, Scott Ellington, said he still considered the West Memphis Three guilty. The case may be closed, but it really isn’t.

“West of Memphis” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Disturbing descriptions of violence and strong language.

West of Memphis

Opens on Tuesday in New York and Los Angeles.

Directed by Amy Berg; written by Ms. Berg and Billy McMillin; directors of photography, Maryse Alberti and Ronan Killeen; edited by Mr. McMillin; music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and Eric D. Johnson and Andy Cabic; production design by Linda Sena; costumes by Diaz Jacobs; produced by Ms. Berg, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Damien Echols and Lorri Davis; released by Sony Pictures Classics. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes.

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