The case of the West Memphis Three isn’t just one of the most widely documented American crime sagas, but one that had a full trilogy of documentaries made laying out the story over a 15 year period in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost movies. Yet, here we are a year after the final Paradise Lost movie and the trio of wrongly imprisoned teens-turned-men’s have been suddenly released with a new documentary about the case. Directed by Amy Berg (who made the excellent Deliver Us From Evil) and produced by Peter Jackson (you know who he is), West of Memphis is an all-encompassing doc tracing the story from beginning to end, peppered with new insights, evidence, and commentary throughout. If you’ve never heard of the story or are unfamiliar with the case, this is an ideal starting point. It’s a bit of a shame that Berlinger and Sinofsky didn’t get a chance to properly cap off their story after being there from the beginning, but if you can somehow divorce comparisons between this film and the others in your mind (despite the fact that Paradise Lost footage appears throughout) there’s no denying that West of Memphis is a pretty powerful doc. It’s still a remarkable story.
If you’ve never heard of the West Memphis Three before, here’s the gist: Back in 1993, police discovered the remnants 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. Then three teenagers (Damian Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jess Misskelley) were arrested primarily because they dressed in black and listened to strange music (and therefore surely 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 life terms 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 their trial and made it pretty clear they were innocent of all charges. Following its premiere on HBO, a groundswell movement popped up to free The West Memphis Three.
The glacial pace of the US justice system ensured that nothing would happen overnight. Eventually, Peter Jackson caught the film in New Zealand and immediately contacted those helping free incarcerated young men. He agreed to pay for any and all legal fees associated with the case, which he reveals on camera in and therein lies the major problem.
Sure, we see previously secret studies that he financed revealing information like how the supposed knife wounds on the victims where in fact snapping turtle bites from animals that lived in the swamp where the bodies were found. Some of this material is pretty incredible and completely justifies the existence of this extra post-script doc. However, there’s also something uncomfortably self-serving about Jackson taking center stage in a film about this case. There’s no doubt that he was centrally involved and the boys probably never would have been released without him. But, it’s not really the most interesting part of the story, even though it takes up a substantial portion of West of Memphis’ running time. Celebrity supporters like Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, and Natalie Maines all get about as much screentime as some law enforcement officials and lawyers. There’s no denying that their public support drew extra attention to the case, but it feels a little wrong.
Still, that is all a major part of The West Memphis Three’s story and I suppose you could argue that diving into that material is a way to distinguish this doc from there Paradise Lost movies. For fans of that remarkable and gut-wrenching series, West of Memphis will feel awfully repetitive at times. However, there’s just enough new material that was absent from the previous movies to justify at least one look. Some of the evidence Jackson kept from cameras until a trial is amazing, the new top suspect looks even more guilty than he did in PL3, and hearing psychotic suspect number 1 turned WM3 supporter John Mark Byers adds some entertaining insights into his volatile involvement with the case. Most importantly, West of Memphis is able to thoroughly cover Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley’s sudden release and show them finally free, an ending sadly denied to Paradise Lost 3 since that movie premiered mere weeks after it happened. Somewhere between that problematic third Paradise Lost documentary and West of Memphis is the perfect concluding documentary for this story. Sadly, that movie will never exist, but Berg’s film offers enough worthy material for familiar viewers and an almost perfect summary for unfamiliar viewers. It’s still a somewhat messy cinematic conclusion to the whole story, but then again with the West Memphis Three, how could we expect anything else? This hasn’t exactly been the tidiest of tales, to say the least.