West of Memphis Movie Review
Corruption, self-interest and rampant bigotry are so clearly portrayed in this riveting documentary that if it doesn't make you angry, maybe there's something wrong with you. As filmmaker Amy Berg explores a shocking case from Arkansas, the intractability of the American legal system is highlighted with a lucid and engaging account of the facts. And it's such a skilfully shot and edited film that it leaves us in no doubt about the truth.
At the centre is a multiple murder in May 1993, which the police claimed was the result of a satanic ritual. So they arrested three goth teens whose counter-culture lifestyle made them seem like the logical suspects. After the trial, Echols was sentenced to death, while Baldwin and Misskelley received life sentences. But observers noticed a string of anomalies in the case: the three 8-year-old victims were not acually killed in an occultic way, and there was plenty of proof that the three teen convicts were innocent. For nearly 20 years the cause of the "West Memphis Three" was taken up by lawyers and celebrities around the world. But the Arkansas court has refused to examine new DNA evidence and would only let the three now-men out of prison if they acknowledged their guilt.
Filmmaker Berg has a huge archive of material at her disposal, including footage from the original police investigation, press coverage, video of the trials and extensive interviews with everyone involved. Assembled together this gives us a remarkable big picture of the chain of events, not only letting us see that these three convicted murderers are innocent but hinting at who the real killer might be. The fact that the court still won't hear the facts is so mind-boggling that we begin to worry if the system in West Memphis is capable of justice at all. Especially when police and prosecutors so obviously twist the evidence away from the facts.
Although it's rather too-long, everything in the film is carefully documented, and the story is told through a journalistic eye that makes each revelation startlingly involving. It also helps to see people we know who have become involved in the case, such as Jackson, Vedder, Rollins and Mains. Each adds perspective and draws us further into the story. There is never a suggestion that the murders were anything other than horrific, but the way the police leapt to the wrong conclusions and then bullheadedly pursued their flawed theory is both infuriating and terrifying. Clearly they could make anyone look guilty if they wanted. And even worse, the real killer is still out there. You'll want to join the cause.