Film Review: ‘West of Memphis’

Freed West Memphis Three member Damien Echols with his wife Lorri Davis in the documentary "West of Memphis," out today. CREDIT: Sony Pictures Classics
Freed West Memphis Three member Damien Echols with his wife Lorri Davis in the documentary “West of Memphis”
CREDIT: Sony Pictures Classics

‘West of Memphis’
Director: Amy Berg
Genre: Documentary
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky did the grunt work on the case of the West Memphis Three, the trio of Arkansas metalhead teens wrongly convicted of and imprisoned for murdering three young boys. Their cameras were there soon after the arrest, back when the notion of the kids’ innocence wasn’t clear even to them. And they stuck with it: after 1996’s “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills” — even as they filmed Metallica and Berlinger made the hated sequel to “The Blair Witch Project” — they twice revisited the case, even if the results both times were little more than glorified DVD supplementary features.

However serendipitous Berling and Sinofsky’s timing was initially, it’s wasn’t so hot at the end: “Paradise Lost: Purgatory,” the third film, was about to premiere when their subjects were suddenly released, necessitating a quickly-filmed coda to actually show the happy ending. This also somewhat justifies the existence of the new “West of Memphis,” which forgoes the cinema verité style of Berlinger and Sinofsky for a purely expository approach, summarizing the three films but now with the knowledge that the activism proved successful. If you don’t have seven hours to take in the original films, this supposedly will do.

That’s a shame, as the first film, at least, is a masterpiece, whereas this is a paraphrase, the filmic equivalent of a Wikipedia page. Director Amy Berg (“Deliver Us From Evil”) does a fine job gutting the story down to a still epic 2 ½ hours, with a chunk of the running time dedicated to Peter Jackson. That’s fine: along with his wife/collaborator Fran Walsh, he donated quite a lot of his Tolkien money to the Memphis Three’s cause, and a soapbox (although really just the ability to spout basic exposition) is the smallest recompense for his generosity.

There is one fresh aspect, and that’s this: its newly freed subjects, now well into their 30s, get to reflect on losing the prime of their lives due to the mistakes of others. They’re not yet ready to delve into this, understandably distracted by the fresh lack of prison walls. Needless to say, for anyone who’s followed this case, the victory is deeply moving, if unavoidably pyrrhic: the WM3 did spend nearly 20 years in jail. There’s a chance for another fascinating film on the subject, filmed years in the future, one where the West Memphis Three come to grips with a community and a society that recklessly screwed up their lives. And when that film happens, it will likely be made by Berlinger and Sinofsky, not Berg.


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