Filmmaker Amy Berg (Oscar nominated Deliver Us From Evil) has once again struck documentary gold with her hard-hitting journalistic feature, West of Memphis.
The film documents the infamous 1993-94 murder trial of the teenaged “West Memphis Three”—Jason Baldwin, Damien Wayne Echols and Jessie Misskelley—who were accused and sentenced with the brutal killings of three children. It takes its audience through a rollercoaster of emotions—from outrage, grief and incredulity, to the opposite spectrum of empathy, disturbance and indignation.
Berg documents her subjects with a lot of sincere introspection yet presents an unbiased view of the circumstances and characters involved whenever possible. With an extensive archive of mind-blowing news footage and interviews, Berg builds up the history of the case and then, once the viewer is hooked, she lets it all unravel.
West of Memphis starts to build its own case at this point, referring to Mara Leveritt‘s book, Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three, one of the first documented investigations into the validity of the case. It opens up the Pandora’s Box of questions surrounding the trial and conviction of the teens and second-guesses the judge, jury and community in their unwavering belief in appearances over truth. It is highly controversial, as one might imagine, because the case is so emotionally charged. The film is particularly well balanced in this respect, however, and gives the viewer all the gory details that elicit human feeling while still unashamedly showing the justice system’s blatant disregard of documented alibis in favor of wild and unfounded stories about the West Memphis Three.
What makes West of Memphis particularly unique is the role the filmmakers have taken in pursuing the story—even the parts not yet told. Producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, in addition to Berg, were particularly key in this as they followed the case and became passionate advocates in seeking justice for the now-incarcerated West Memphis Three. Ultimately, these filmmakers did more than simply document a great story—they investigated, they pushed, they worked with the families, they became involved, and they made it their story, too.
Jackson was not the only celebrity involved, not by a long shot. Once word got out, everyone from Eddie Vedder to Johnny Depp to the Dixie Chicks joined the cause to try and help overturn the verdict and free the West Memphis Three, in addition to thousands of other concerned citizens.
The archival footage, as mentioned before, is spot on in its relevance and the collection of talking head interviews only add to the solid foundation this film is built upon. Some of it is incredibly graphic, earning the film its R rating. Additional shots and montages provide useful backgrounds and are well composed and appropriate. The film is a bit long at 2 hours 25 minutes and would not have suffered much if the editor had been a touch more ruthless, particularly in the second half. However, all the content is interesting and pertinent, if not a little superfluous.
Overall, West of Memphis tells an incredible story that makes the viewer question everything that has ever been taught or believed about the justice system in the United States. More than that, it inspires one to pay closer attention, invest a little more, dig a little deeper, and hopefully fight to keep all innocent victims, be they the abused or the accused, safe in future.
Director: Amy Berg
Writer: Billy McMillin, Amy Berg
Starring: Jason Baldwin, Damien Wayne Echols, Jessie Misskelley
Release Date: Dec. 25, 2012