I’ve never had the time or the energy to watch all 3 Paradise Lost films and, having seen West of Memphis, I’m glad I never bothered to. Whereas the aforementioned trilogy will take over 6 hours to document the injustices committed against the ‘West Memphis 3’, Amy Berg’s new film exhaustively covers the same subject in less than half that time.
This comparatively brief film takes you on an emotional rollercoaster through a horrendous murder, a modern-day witch-hunt, and an epic struggle for justice spanning over twenty years.
For those unaware of the infamous case, I’ll provide a brief overview. In West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993, Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers went missing after school and were later found dead in a nearby ditch.
Investigators were horrified to find their bodies covered in gruesome lacerations and concluded they had been ritually sacrificed by a satanic cult. Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr., and Jason Baldwin were held-up as the cultists who’d performed these horrendous acts and, on the basis of expert and witness testimony, two of the teenagers were handed a life sentence and the third, Damien Echols, was sentenced to death.
The convicted teens maintained their innocence and the true scale of the justice system’s failure only became more apparent as the struggle to overturn their sentences grew. Commentators have described this case as histories first ‘crowd-sourced investigation’ as a worldwide movement gathered to fight for the release of the ‘Memphis 3’. They found, for instance, that the ‘expert’ who put forward the case for satanic cults failed his professional exams multiple times and key witnesses that testified to the 3’s devil worshiping later confessed to lying.
While the injustices uncovered are absolutely astounding to hear, West of Memphis really takes off when it starts to build the case against the real murderer. I won’t provide spoilers here, but be prepared for some of the most gripping and harrowing documentary footage ever recorded.
With a story as epic as this, West of Memphis could easily have become an incomprehensible mess. Fortunately, the many interviews with various experts and witnesses are well contextualized throughout and, while a brief lapse in concentration is still likely to leave you scrambling to find your bearings, it’s relatively easy to keep track of the plot. Amy Berg has not only produced a well- structured film, but one dripping with the chilling darkness of an Arkansas winter. Like Herzog’s Into The Abyss, the bleak and barren countryside creates a sense of isolation in the face of institutional barbarity. Atmospheric and brooding, West of Memphis nevertheless maintains a sense of decorum and refuses to overplay the horror-card for thrills.
A powerful and moving film, West of Memphis is the long overdue go-to documentary on the ‘Memphis 3’, able to draw upon twenty-years-worth of evidence-gathering and finally present the world with the truth. If nothing else, having the final word on this highly debated case is enough to validate the importance of documentary cinema and I hope West of Memphis can succeed in inspiring the next generation of campaigners for justice.
After reader’s comments this post was updated on 16 October 2012 to reflect the correct sentences that the West Memphis 3 were given in court. Its author, Jacob Habord, also sat down to watch and review all three Paradise Lost films. The resulting review can be found here.