The story of the West Memphis Three is one of the most bizarre, protracted legal sagas in the history of American justice. When Damien Echols was given a death sentence, absolutely no one could predict that when he was freed eighteen years later, his wife would cling to Eddie Vedder for comfort. Ongoing interest in the case would not be possible with Paradise Lost documentaries, directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Paradise Lost III ends with the West Memphis Three enjoying their freedom, so when I heard about West of Memphis, another documentary about the case, I could only wonder why director Amy Berg bothered. It turns out that there is a lot more to uncover about the case, and to my utter surprise, the three men would not be free without the help of Peter Jackson. Yes, that Peter Jackson.
In 1993, three eight-year old boys were murdered and found in a ditch. They were stripped naked, hogtied, and it looked as if their bodies were mutilated. Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin were tried and convicted for the killings. The opening section of West of Memphis, which covers the crime and its subsequent trial, bears a strong resemblance to Paradise Lost. Anyone who has seen the 1996 documentary knows the trial is a farce, and that the defendants were (wrongly) convicted because of how they looked, and how the prosecution made up some satanic cult bullshit. It’s necessary for context, if a little tedious. But once Jackson and his producer Fran Walsh reach out to Echols’ wife, asking how they could help, West of Memphis goes down a seedy path of incompetence, corruption, and child abuse.
Whereas Paradise Lost follows the trial towards its sad conclusion, West of Memphis is mostly about the lengthy investigation between the trial and the final Alford plea. With the help of Jackson and Walsh, Echols’ legal team hires a retired FBI investigator and a medical examiner to reassess the case evidence. The fascinating material is told with lucidity and the excitement of a new discovery. It turns out that the Arkansas medical examiner and prosecution were staggeringly terrible at their jobs, and would rather have innocent men in jail than tarnish their careers. Berg shows more the grisly crime photos more than the Paradise Lost directors, but her purpose is not exploitative. The photos are necessary so we can better understand an alternative explanation of how the lacerations appeared on the boy’s bodies. West of Memphis’ style is journalistic and matter-of-fact, except for this section where the imagery gets surreal and downright little disturbing.
The team had a huge break when Terry Hobbs, the step-father of one of the victims, sued Natalie Maines of The Dixie Chicks for defamation (she’s another West Memphis Three celebrity advocate). Jackson and his investigators had reason to believe Hobbs was the murderer, so they gave Maines’ lawyers access to what they’ve uncovered. West of Memphis uses snippets from Hobbs’ deposition to give an eerie portrayal of a singularly unlikable, creepy man who cannot control his violent nature. Berg does not exactly accuse Hobbs, yet there are breathtaking scenes where friends of Hobbs’ nephew go on record about what they heard Hobbs say (some of the young men do this on camera). Later, we hear conversations between Hobbs and his friend/alibi, seemingly as they happen in real time, and West of Memphis unfolds with implacable suspense. Berg and the audience benefit from access to the investigation sponsored by Jackson and Walsh, so some of the documentary unfolds with urgency. These quiet, revealing moments are where it’s difficult to believe Berg’s luck.
West of Memphis does not try to be the definitive account of the West Memphis Three case. Instead, it’s testament to what helped Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin win their freedom. Paradise Lost moved Jackson and Walsh– just like Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, and hundreds of anonymous volunteers were moved – so he decided to help in any way he could. Since Jackson is one the world’s top filmmakers, he could accomplish a lot more than you or I, and his influence on the outcome is much larger than the typical volunteer. But at its core, West of Memphis is an inspirational film, one about how dedication and moral courage can lead to a seemingly impossible victory. The documentary ends with a title card, one that thanks everyone who helped the three men who are no longer so young, and I don’t think a film’s final message has ever felt so sincere.