Judge Erich Asperschlager is a better judge than the one who presided over this case.
Remakes are nothing new for Hollywood but it's not a concept normally associated with documentaries. The Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh-produced West of Memphis follows closely on the heels of Paradise Lost, the three-film HBO documentary series that introduced the world to the "West Memphis Three"—three teenagers who were arrested and wrongly convicted in the early '90s of the horrific murder of three grade school boys in rural Arkansas. Paradise Lost spent nearly seven hours covering the case, from the original trial to the release of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. from jail 18 years later. It's an amazing film—raw, thorough, and the publicity it generated kicked off a grassroots movement that helped free the West Memphis Three.
Facts of the Case
West of Memphis, directed by Amy Berg, covers a lot of the same ground as the HBO documentaries but with the benefit of hindsight. Where the Paradise Lost films were eyewitness accounts of the injustice and its aftermath West of Memphis puts it all in perspective, with special attention on the possible identity of the real murderer.
Those who watched Paradise Lost will be familiar with the story of Damien, Jason, and Jessie—outsiders who became scapegoats because of their long hair and black clothes. Faced with the unthinkable, the police and citizens of West Memphis embraced the theory that the murders were part of some satanic ritual. Railroaded by the local judicial system and buried under false testimony, Jason and Jessie were sentenced to life imprisonment and Damien was sentenced to death. Thanks to the tireless work of strangers who believed in their innocence, experts were brought in and enough new evidence was collected to secure their 2011 release. Except that their freedom was dependent on Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley entering "Alford" pleas—a technical admission of guilt in return for their release—it was a happy ending to a tragic story.
The issue, as Echols explains and Jackson echoes, is that closing the case means that the real killer is still at large. There have been several suspects over the years, including a mystery man seen at a fast food restaurant after the murders, and victim Christopher Byers' stepfather John Mark Byers, whose story makes up a large part of Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. The current theory is that the murders were committed by another victim's stepfather, Terry Hobbs. West of Memphis turns up the heat on Hobbs, depicting him as a violent, abusive man with a shaky alibi and possible motive. Berg, Jackson, and Walsh spend a lot of screentime laying out the case against Terry Hobbs. It's pretty convincing, although the filmmakers' focus on Hobbs borders on obsession. He is clearly not a nice guy, but it's ironic that a film so critical of one flimsy conviction would argue for someone else's guilt based mostly on hearsay and circumstantial evidence.
If Paradise Lost didn't exist, West of Memphis would seem like a better film. This one is flashier, packed with celebrity supporters like Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, Henry Rollins, Natalie Maines, and Jackson. The film expands on the story with new evidence and analysis, but none of it is enough to trump the immediacy and breadth of the earlier documentaries.
Not that West of Memphis needs to justify itself. Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh became involved with the case a long time ago after seeing the first Paradise Lost, and Berg began work on this film soon after. Jackson and Walsh helped fund the DNA testing that led to the release of the West Memphis Three. They became close friends with Lorri Davis, a woman who fell in love with and married Damien Echols while he was still behind bars. The filmmakers' relationship with Lorri and Damien is evident throughout West of Memphis, from their producer credits to the focus on Damien's story to the exclusion of Jason and Jessie. At times, it feels like the story of the West Memphis One. Echols has always been the most outspoken of the trio but it makes for an imbalanced film.
West of Memphis takes advantage of the Blu-ray format with a sharp 1.78:1 1080p transfer. Most of the interview segments were shot in recent years, in HD. The archival footage looks significantly worse, to no surprise. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is more active than you might expect. While talking heads segments are rooted up front, rear speakers kick in for Nick Cave's score and the occasional ambient effect.
The Paradise Lost DVD sets were light on bonus features, but West of Memphis is packed with extras that eclipse the film's beefy 147-minute running time:
• Audio commentary: Like the documentary itself, the bonus features focus heavily on Damien Echols, starting with this informative feature-length commentary with director Amy Berg, Echols, and Lorri Davis.
• Deleted Scenes (87:43): A feature-length collection of deleted scenes, including more archival footage, a closer look at police and juror misconduct, and the story of another wrongly convicted man. Smack dab in the middle there's a 47-minute Arkansas Times panel discussion featuring various figures involved with the case. Why it's buried in the deleted scenes instead of being a top-level bonus feature, I have no idea.
• "Toronto International Film Festival Red Carpet and Q&A" (23:14): Berg, Echols, Davis, Natalie Maines, and Johnny Depp talk passionately about the case and the film.
• "Toronto International Film Festival Press Conference" (38:49): This TIFF conference once again features Berg, Depp, Echols, and Davis, with Peter Jackson joining in via Skype. There's overlap with the Q&A, the attendees ask some obnoxious questions, and Depp seems out of place, but it's all here for those who want it.
• "Damien's Past (Re-Creations)" (6:02): Four dramatic re-enactments of Echols' teen years, with his narration.
It might seem odd that West of Memphis came out so soon after the last Paradise Lost film, but there is no calling "shotgun" on justice. The happy ending to the West Memphis Three case was the result of the tireless efforts of not only filmmakers and celebrities, but countless ordinary people who devoted years of their lives to help three men they had never met. It doesn't matter if there are two WM3 documentaries or two hundred. Damien, Jason, and Jessie's ordeal is a cautionary tale about rush to judgment and a flawed judicial system. West of Memphis is too slick, too imbalanced, and too reckless in its vilification of Terry Hobbs to be a definitive account of the West Memphis Three, but the story it tells is important. Even if it's been told before.
Not guilty, no matter what the state of Arkansas says.
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