Thursday, April 11, 2013

West of Memphis

West of Memphis (2013)
Dir. Amy Berg
Written by Amy Berg, Steve McMillin
Starring Lawyers, well-meaning middle-aged lefty activists, Eddie Vedder, rednecks.

OK, so you watched the PARADISE LOST trilogy following the tragic murder of three young children and the pathetic failure of justice afterwords as three Arkansas high school outcasts were railroaded by an uncaring cadre of simpering rednecks into life imprisonment for the crime, despite the fact that they obviously, you know, didn’t do it. Soundtrack by Metallica. And you also watched DELIVER US FROM EVIL, about the child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church. And you were right depressed (even though that one didn’t have a soundtrack by Metallica) and thought, you know what I need, a movie about the whole West Memphis Three experience, but with that added soul-crushing artistry so evident in DELIVER US FROM EVIL, and also with Eddie Vedder instead of Metallica, because it’s god damn 2013 and Metallic is passe.

Well, happy National Depression day to you, you got it. This is a Peter Jackson-produced, slickly-constructed one-and-done documentary which covers the whole episode from beginning to the end, sort of as a companion piece to the PARADISE LOST movies. What’s that you say? Why is that necessary when we already have three movies which cover roughly the same time period and have that great story-unfolds-in-real-time Maysles brothers style rawness to them? Well, I asked that same question, but then went to see it anyway. And it turns out that it was necessary, because while the PARADISE LOST films are a terrific example of activist journalism, WEST OF MEMPHIS is the definitive account of the story as a whole. Looking back from the conclusion, Berg is able to construct the whole narrative from the beginning, laying the groundwork and expertly guiding us through the way various events impact each other and culminate in the strange, winding tale of Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelly, and Jason Baldwin navigating through a obtuse bureaucratic nightmare of tangled justice and morbid celebrity.

It all started back in 1993, when the three then-highschoolers were railroaded through the justice system on the sensational charge of a triple homicide for the purposes of carrying out Satanic ritual. Today the charges seem ludicrous, but in 1993, in the waning hours of the great Satanic Panic, they seemed so plausible that apparently they passed almost uncommented on by anyone, as Berg demonstrates in a wickedly convincing opening which lays out the case against the boys. Multiple witness attest to their satanism and their private confession to the crime. Serious, credentialed experts on Satanic ritual testifying about the plausibility of the crime. Jessie Misskelly’s detailed confession to the police. A knife found in the lake behind their house. Their disturbing, cheerful demeanor in the face of a horrific accusation. The sequence ends with Echols (the reputed ringleader) flashing a sinister smile at a reporter after his conviction, an image which made the national news and sealed the case against them. It all seems pretty overwhelming, until you step back from the sensational news coverage and realize it’s a fundamentally outrageous case from the ground up. There was never a swath of Satanic violence which swept the nation -- just a wave of fear and a self-confirming media cycle which whipped hysteria higher and higher. The very accusation being leveled against the three self-described “poor white trash” high schoolers was absurd on it’s face. But no one seemed to be paying any attention to that -- at least until award-winning documentarians and Maysles Bros. disciples Joe Berlinger (BLAIR WITCH PROJECT 2 [really!]) and Bruce Sinofsky (BROTHER’S KEEPER, SOME KIND OF MONSTER) turned their cameras on the drama for a HBO documentary.

Note to self: Never go to Arkansas.

Here’s where things get weird, because suddenly the PARADISE LOST movies transforms the case of these three high school outcasts from a pathetic small-town miscarriage of justice to an international cause du jour. Out of the blue, a stranger from New Zealand calls the incarcerated kids, promising to help them with their case and appeal. They cut to this kindly benefactor. It’s Peter Jackson.

At first, it’s slightly disappointing to see Jackson and Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins and so forth show up. Documentaries love to rope unrelated celebrities into appearing in these things so they can get their picture in the trailer. Hell, Slash seems to have built an entire cottage industry around appearing at the beginning of docs about other musicians. “The story of the three kids pushed into prison by a bunch of superstitious slimeballs who wanted the case resolved quickly so they could get a career boost is interesting enough by itself,” you think, “Stop wasting our time by telling us what Johnny Depp thinks.”

But then you gradually realize that no, that’s not what they’re up to; this story just is strange enough that Peter Jackson is legitimately a part of it. Before long, Jackson (along with his longtime partner Fran Walsh, who curiously never appears on film) is not just sending money, but is pouring through long legal documents looking for inconsistencies, making arrangements with DNA testing facilities, advising their lawyers on legal strategy. Henry Rollins is in West Memphis, interviewing witnesses. Eddie Vedder is visiting Damian in prison and co-writing songs with him. This lends a bizarre surreal air to the whole thing, where the legal system grinds on in its predictably agonizing glacial way, and the whole thing devolves into a never ending cycle of lawyers meeting in sparse, florescent-lit government offices. But then, there’s Eddie Vedder, sitting there at a table with his own legal pad and briefcase!

Det. Henry Rollins in: The Case of the Missing Justice.

The PARADISE LOST movies have the advantage of being a minute-by-minute dog’s-eye view of the whole saga with Berlinger and Sinofsky’s trademark hard-nosed journalistic style. Berg --entering the story only at the very end-- doesn’t have that angle, but instead finds a different kind of meaning in her god’s-eye hindsight storytelling. While Berlinger and Sinofsky were blindly feeling for clues in the murk, Berg already has all the information at her disposal and consequently draws elegant narrative lines from the chaos of the moment, eloquently demonstrating how the tangled mess of legal wreckage came to its final shape. She lays out the story of the ambitious small-town prosecutor who managed to make a sensational case just in time to run for higher office. The grieving parents who (understandably) trusted the police and the seemingly ironclad evidence against the three kids, but who gradually came to have their doubts. The horrifying physical and psychological damage to the three caused by the more than 18-year incarceration (Echols, in particular, deteriorated considerably towards the end). And perhaps most interestingly, the suspicious behavior of one Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the murdered boys and one would think a prime suspect in their murder. Apparently the police barely interviewed him, but a significant amount of evidence piled up against him as increased funds enabled the defense to conduct more thorough forensic investigations.

Hobbs’ case is particularly interesting because it allows the defense to plausibly offer an alternative scenario, rather than just the devastating critique of the case brought against them which originally rallied people to their cause. One of Hobbs’ hairs was found in the middle of a ligature knot used to tie the murdered boys. His alibi, which at first seemed convincing, becomes highly suspect when the person he was with confesses that he can’t account for his whereabouts while the murders were taking place. Pictures from the day show that he changed his clothes sometime after the murders occurred, and witnesses saw him doing laundry that night (unusual, considering his son was missing and everyone else was out looking for him). He has a history of violent behavior, and now even his ex-wife has her suspicions about him.

It all seems pretty convincing, right? But then, they also interview his sister, who assures us that Hobbs is a good person, and someone should stand up for him against these accusations. And it strikes you that you may never know the truth. Hell, PARADISE LOST 2 strongly (and believably) implicates John Mark Byers (another father of one of the boys) as the true killer, but evidence ultimately exonerated him. Meaning that the father of one of the dead boys had to spend years being publicly accused of their murder. He even shows up at the release of Echols, Misskelly and Baldwin, asserting he feels sympathy for them because he, too, was a victim of false accusation. And then goes on to accuse Hobbs, proving that some people just never learn.

Would you believe this billboard actually produced tangible, concrete results?

The reason I bring all this up is that the movie’s most powerful moments are not the ones you might expect. Yes, it’s moving to watch the three wrongly-incarcerated boys try to hold onto hope and finally experience some level of vindication, but many of the most heartwrenching moments come from heretofore minor players in the saga. As the movie begins to voice its suspicions about Terry Hobbs, it moves to interview his ex-wife, stepdaughter, and friends. We get to watch in real time as Berg lays out the case against Hobbs to the guy who provided his alibi (apparently never interviewed at any length by police) and he gradually realizes exactly what she’s suggesting about his friend. And the horror and the guilt this guy suddenly feels just comes pouring out. It’s not like he did anything wrong or has anything to confess, it’s just the visual record of a man suddenly forced to rewrite the past 18 years of his life and question everything he’s assumed he understood. Likewise, watching Hobbs’ ex-wife and kid struggle with their inability to rule out this suspect is just painful to watch. Again, it’s not like they were withholding evidence or anything, its just that they’re suddenly forced to confront the unthinkable. And without the ability to ever truly know for sure. As horrible as it is to spend 18 years in prison for a crime you didn’t commit, it’s got to be almost worse to suddenly realize you were at least partly responsible not only for the witch hunt which locked away three innocent boys, but for providing cover to the real murderer.

A now-grown Echols, waiting to be interviewed by Wener Herzog

Fortunately, the movie has a (spoiler) semi-happy ending, with Eddie Vedder et al finally managing to negotiate the release of the three (but allowing their conviction to stand, freeing the state of Arkansas to save face but also preventing any legal action against Terry Hobbs). We even get to spend a little time amidst the stock footage of symbolic birds flying with the three now-grown-men as they eat their first meal outside of prison in almost two decades, meet with their families, and (with difficulty) adjust to outside life. Echols is a particularly articulate speaker about their journey, and comes across as an amazingly charismatic and intelligent spokesperson for himself and his peers. Admittedly, he’s one of the credited producers for the movie so it’s not like they were going to make him look bad. But the whole film has a palpable sense of fair play to it, giving everyone a say and --with the exception of Hobbs-- never appearing to manipulate the narrative in an effort to create heroes and villains. Even the Arkansas government lawyers trying to keep the innocent kids in prison are given the chance to explain and present themselves as decent, honest public servants who are just trying to do their job. Hence, you understand where they’re coming from even as you also understand how they fit into the colossal legal quicksand that seems uniquely primed to suck in powerless misfits like Echols and his friends (in maybe the film’s darkest moment, he notes “People are always talking about this case like it’s extraordinary, but it really isn’t. This happens all the time – people get murdered, things get swept under the rug, and nobody thinks twice about it. We were three kids: bottom of the barrel, poor white trash. They thought they could just throw us in jail and we’d be forgotten. The only thing that made our case an exception was that there were film crews in the courtroom who caught everything on tape.”) The film offers plenty of evidence to back him up, but thankfully it’s about more than that, too. It’s about a whole universe of people drawn together by this entire mess, each with their own reasons and internal logic. It’s about the whole experience, from the crime scene to the confines of prison to the grim government offices to the celebrity sitting rooms and benefit concerts.

It’s this ability to weave a cohesive whole out of so many disparate and sometimes contradictory parts that makes WEST OF MEMPHIS such an achievement. I’m not usually one to gush over these talking-heads retrospective documentaries, but in this case the unbelievable story, exhaustive research, sharp filmmaking and keen sense of purpose combine to create something seriously great. Not for a second of it’s 147 minutes does the film drag or belabor a point, nor does it ever gloss over something which seems important. Rarely does one see a documentarian take such a sprawling topic and still produce a result this focused, and the result is a document of genuinely breathtaking power and endless fascination. If there’s a better film this year, I’ll be amazed. How’s this for a miracle: for a story with a core this depressing, in the end there’s much more to be inspired about.

Happy ending: release from prison, an HBO documentary, and a lifetime of morbid celebrity! But hey, they got to meet Eddie Vedder.


  1. New project for you: Come up with a list of all of the documentaries that have focused on the same issue but taken it from different perspectives. Watch those. Write about them.

    Okay, well maybe this is a project for me.

    But seriously - I'm curious - has there ever been another documentary that so effectively addressed an issue that had seemingly been addressed so many times before? The clarity of this film was astounding to me.

    Having only watched parts of the Paradise Lost trilogy I may not be the most reliable audience members, but when and where else could you find such a fantastic piece?

  2. Yeah, one of the weirdest things here is that not only does WEST OF MEMPHIS cover a lot of the same things as PARADISE LOST (albeit in a different way), the latter documentary was had such a strong influence on the case itself that WEST has to actually include another documentary into its narrative. So you have a meta-documentary talking about the importance of another documentary on the same topic!

  3. Yeah, it's that meta idea that I love.

    The only other topic that I can think of in which this kind of treatment could be administered somewhere down the line is 9/11.

  4. Dan and I once watched three very different movies about the Manson Family murders for comparison. It was an interesting exercise. I highly encourage that project ^ :)