Cameras do them justice
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, January 25, 2013
For fans of the “Paradise Lost” movies -- Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s shattering documentaries about gruesome child murders in West Memphis, Ark., and the three teenagers who were railroaded into being convicted for the crimes -- news that Peter Jackson was producing a documentary of his own was bizarre. What’s Mr. Lord-of-the-Rings doing big-footing a story Berlinger and Sinofsky have already -- heroically -- brought to public attention and outrage?
Thankfully, Jackson has used his powers for good with “West of Memphis,” the film he produced along with one of the “West Memphis Three,” Damien Echols. For the uninitiated, “West of Memphis” provides a clear, concise recap of a case that began with the 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys who were found naked and hog-tied in a ditch near their homes. Because of injuries to their bodies, the police immediately suspected cult involvement and homed in on Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley and especially Echols for his love of heavy metal music, black clothing and nonconformist demeanor.
With only a rambling, inconsistent confession from the developmentally challenged Misskelley and no physical evidence, a jury found the young men guilty, and Echols was sentenced to death. When Berlinger and Sinofsky’s first “Paradise Lost” film came out in 1996, it was clear that a grave miscarriage of justice had led to the conviction, and the West Memphis Three became a cause for grass-roots activists and celebrities the likes of Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Patti Smith and Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines.
All of that is summarized in “West of Memphis,” which pays due homage to its predecessors in bringing the case to light and keeping the fire burning. But the film also uncovers its own forensic and DNA evidence, thanks to investigators that Jackson and his partner, Fran Walsh, pay for.
“West of Memphis” goes from primer to procedural as a seasoned FBI profiler, veteran pathologists and even a turtle expert come into play in debunking the state of Arkansas’s case against Baldwin, Misskelley and Echols.
These inquiries lead to an entirely new suspect in the case, which throws into stark relief the kind of misconduct, incompetence and social hysteria that produce too many false convictions of the poor and disenfranchised. (As Echols himself says in the film, “This case is nothing out of the ordinary. This happens all the time.”) But director Amy Berg has a keen eye for emotional detail as well, especially when some of the victims’ parents begin to change their minds about the case.
“West of Memphis” makes a lucid, absorbing contribution to an epic saga that Berlinger and Sinofsky first wrestled into an 18-year-long narrative that changed two lives and saved one.
And it gives that epic an ending that’s happy, sad, inspiring, infuriating, right and terribly wrong, all at the same time.
Contains disturbing, violent content and some profanity.