West of Memphis - movie review

“In 1993 three boys were murdered in a small town of West Memphis, Arkansas.

It took one day to discover the bodies.

It took 11 hours to find three teenagers guilty.

It took 18 years to expose the truth.

This is the story behind the infamous case of the West Memphis Three…”

Lauded filmmaker Amy Berg has created an evocative and provocative re-examination of the “West Memphis 3” case in her latest investigative documentary, West of Memphis.

The film, which to a great extent builds on HBO’s Paradise Lost series (that also privately investigated the case), delves into the story of three teenagers – Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin – who were incarcerated for 18 years following the heinous murders of three eight-year-old boys – Christopher Byers, Steven Branch, and Michael Moore – despite tremendous evidence that suggested them innocent.

The movie opens with a pastiche of courtroom scenes, old news reports and interviews with the small townspeople in the early nineties, as Echols, a Metallica-listening, occult-interested, all-round “troubled” (albeit irrevocably charismatic) teenager allegedly manipulated and coerced his best friend (Jason Baldwin) and the “mentally disabled” Jessie Miskelley into performing a depraved, satanic ritual on three innocent children. Supposedly, the boys tied-up, hung, dismembered and “drank the blood” from the children’s’ genitals in a “ritual killing”, according only to a mis-contextualised “confession” Miskelley made after a menacing eleven-hour police interrogation and over-exaggerated reports pushed by a inept investigative body to a fearmongering media.

Echols was thus awarded the death sentence, and the other two life imprisonment.

The salacious, grotesque allegations made against the teenagers are rehashed in the first third of the film, and indeed, for someone unfamiliar with the case and the subsequent grassroots campaign to free them that followed, it seems inconceivable that professionals operating under the legal system would construct – supposedly knowingly – such monstrous, unsubstantiated claims against three minors. But, as the story unfolds, Berg artfully (though subtly) highlights how the West Memphis Three trial resembles a Salem-esque witch hunt as well as the American justice system’s reprehensible shortcomings.

The next two hours of the film explores new evidence suggesting Terry Hobbs, Steven Branch’s stepfather, is the case’s prime overlooked suspect who conducted the gruesome – but by no mean “satanic” murders – and positions watchers to believe that Hobbs, much in the same way the opening introduces the first three as killers, was responsible for the crime. Portrayed as a dead-inside redneck who also may or may not have sexually abused his now-drug-addicted step-daughter, beat his wife and children regularly, attained AVOs from neighbours, and has family members saying he confessed to the crime, Berg puts forward a compelling case against him. Hobbs’ pleas of innocence are not aided by his shonky alibi and the fact that he was the last person to be seen with the boys.

But with only one strand of Hobbs’ hair found on one of the boys’ bodies, the legal system has been unable to investigate Hobbs as a suspect, especially since Echols, Miskelley and Baldwin were let out of jail under a confusing “innocent but guilty” loophole after serving 18 years for a crime they may have never committed. 

But it isn’t Berg’s in-depth analysis, research and gripping interviews that renders this documentary inimitable. It is her incredible skills as a storyteller that crafts West of Memphis into an outstanding piece of journalism, as well as a stand-alone narrative. The entire film is a high-adrenaline, profoundly affecting hero’s journey – with the appropriate protagonist/ villain/ allies archetypes woven in – with an unmatched ability to induce utter terror, acute hysteria and astonishing distress in every audience member. Graphic images from the case, panic-stricken testimonies and the aftermath of trauma is explored in a way that allows viewers to remain both affected and detached from the story’s atrocious hate crime and the ostensibly unfair jailing of three more innocent boys.

Co-produced by Peter Jackson and the now-free Damien Echols, a large proportion of the documentary is told through the eyes of Lorri Davis, Echols’ now-wife, who fell in love with Echols after watching Paradise Lost and lobbied for his, Miskelley’s and Baldwin’s freedom. Through her version of events, the story’s utter tragedy becomes augmented through a longstanding romance and the human potential for kindness and compassion.

What is most frustrating about West of Memphis though is that there is absolutely no sense of narrative closure. While not the most ethical statement to make, it is easy to lose sight of the ‘tragedy of 6’ discourse Berg plays on, and become obsessed with the who-dunnit aspect of the case. As a viewer who has been subjected to close to three hours of unrelenting confrontation, you feel impelled to make a judgement of your own, even though the story's murky waters of silence and violence disallows any potential for catharsis.

So, do I endorse the film? On an objective level, it’s a fantastic example of long-form doco-drama. But on an emotional one, it is nothing short of bone-chilling. If you're looking for easy watching, I would not recommend. And even if you're gung-ho about dead children and trauma, I encourage you to re-think. This is no average SVU episode. 

West of Memphis airs in cinemas nationally today. 

profile of genevieverosen