Film Review – West of Memphis

West Of Memphis (MA)

Directed by: Amy Berg

Starring: Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Peter Jackson, Eddie Vedder

Four and a half stars

Review by: Julian Wright

Every time a new haunted house thriller, disaster film, romantic comedy or remake is released, we always wonder if there is anything fresh left to warrant another entry. The same old clichés are usually trotted out time and again and we cling to hope for a glimmer of originality, a nugget of new insight or a novel element. And sometimes we are rewarded. Often, we are not. Anyone who has been following the captivating story of the West Memphis 3 may hope for the same. Is there anything left to uncover in the shocking and horrifying 1993 West Memphis triple homicide case in which three kooky teenagers, accused of being bloodthirsty cultists, were locked up for the murder and mutilations of three young boys despite so little evidence of their supposed guilt?

Not only has the media been tracking the revelations of the case for almost 20 years, but documentary film makers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky spent years filming hundreds of hours of trial and interview footage almost from the get go and edited it all into three lengthy documentaries, the Paradise Lost series (the third one was released as recently as last year). By this point, it would seem no stone has been left unturned. I must confess that I have not seen the series, but apparently West Of Memphis producer Peter Jackson (yeah, the Lord of the Rings guy) and director Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil) found a few hitherto unknown stones and took a peek underneath.

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A quick Google search reveals that, unsurprisingly, West Of Memphis covers much of the same territory as Paradise Lost. It brings anyone unfamiliar with the saga up to speed with a truncated rehash of past facts (a coerced confession, satanic cult hysteria, botched investigations, false witness testimony, public and celebrity support for the convicted three) but delivered in a gripping fashion and up to present day. But for those that have endured the 400 minute long series, there are some surprises in store here, with some fascinating input from Jackson himself (who launched his own investigation), family history and past crimes revealed and fingers being pointed to a new suspect.

Being that this is mostly retrospective (Paradise Lost was filmed as the story unfolded), there is a lot of information to take in. With so many players by this point, despite title cards and constant reminders, it can often be hard to keep up with who is who, particularly when it comes to the countless people involved in the investigation and legal side of things. But extra care has been taken with this short hand introduction to the story to make it compelling as if it is being told for the first time. The facts are not rushed, graphic imagery is not shied away from and anecdotes not discounted. Given the number of years this has all been brewing and the running time the film makes have allowed themselves, it sometimes appears they have taken the “everything including the kitchen sink” approach. There is seemingly hard evidence, circumstantial evidence, trashy gossip, believable hearsay, disturbing domestics. And it simply sweeps you up into this world of mystery and intrigue, the plot of which get thicker and murkier.

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Berg makes us mock jury members in a faux retrial (a retrial that she and producers Jackson and Fran Walsh are fighting for with this documentary and believe is deserved), a thrilling position to be in, as we are allowed to pore over the old facts and recently introduced ones and make up our own minds. We become part of the fight for justice. Hollywood superstar Jackson’s involvement could have been a case of a rich, pompous film maker using his riches to help save a trio of poor, white trash. It certainly sounds that way when it is described. But Jackson is just as frustrated with the wrongful imprisonment and rigid legal system and curious as anyone else familiar with the case that wants to see this twisty mystery solved and justice served. And his investigation offers the fresh information this documentary needs to set it apart from Lost Paradise.

Not to take anything away from the years of hard work Berlinger and Sinotsky did on their series, I can only judge West of Memphis as someone who has not seen their work, but Berg has delivered a fascinating, chilling, haunting and moving investigation into the lives of the affected and a questionable legal system that has as many real life surprise twists as the true events in The Imposter, culminating in a heartbreaking, tear inducing and shattering conclusion. West Of Memphis is a sensational documentary in its own right, but it has encouraged me to fill in the gaps with Paradise Lost.

West Of Memphis is in limited release in Australia from February 14.

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