West of Memphis (2012)
Review by Jude Felton
The three Paradise Lost documentaries took a long hard look at the case of the West Memphis 3, of the three young men who were imprisoned for the Robin Hood murders back in 1993. They brought to light, more so than anywhere else, the fact that the three imprisoned did not commit the crimes of which they were convicted. They were fascinating and heartbreaking viewing, and highly recommended.
With this in mind I was unsure how much a new documentary about the subject could add to what has already been told. Well, rest assured, this is required viewing, although it is no less heartbreaking in its impact. If you aren’t aware of the case of the West Memphis 3, I have included some links below for you to check out; otherwise I will continue in the hope that you are knowledgeable, to some degree, in the subject. Otherwise this review would go on for pages.
West of Memphis takes a look at the case from the very beginning; from the arrest and conviction of Damien Echols, James Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, who all served 18 years in jail. It looks at the new evidence that was brought to light; the Justice system’s refusal to really examine what was put in front of them, interviews with family and friends on both sides of the case and the eventual release of the three young men.
Produced by Peter Jackson, who also appears, as well as featuring input from the likes of Henry Rollins and Eddie Vedder, West of Memphis also focuses heavily on Lorri Davis, Echols’ wife, who fought tirelessly for justice. This is a very personal documentary that deals with a much larger subject; for example, the real killer(s) are still at large, and looks deeply at the frustrations and horrors of the case.
At 2 ½ hours, West of Memphis could quite easily have been hard to sit through, but in all honesty it could have been twice as long and still have been riveting viewing. There is so much here that isn’t covered in the previous Paradise Lost documentaries, and in my opinion sits as a perfect companion piece to those; I’d recommend watching all of them, personally, as well as reading Echols’ book, Life after Death, for a complete(ish) picture of the entire case.
What is all too apparent though is the fact that it is a tragic tale, with men falsely convicted and murderers still walking free. The hurt on both sides is all too clear to see. What is also conveyed well is that, yes in effect there was a crusade to free the West Memphis 3, but they aren’t portrayed as ‘heroes’. They were just three normal guys who got dealt the worst possible cards. They won’t get the years back, and still have the stigma of being technically ‘guilty’ against their names, and the families will not get their children back. There were, and are, no real winners in this case, and I guess that there never will be, as to my knowledge there is no open case in terms of bringing the real culprits to justice.
West of Memphis does, however, portray an incredibly convincing case against those they are believed to be guilty; hell, they may as well have smoking guns in their hands, and director Amy Berg deals with the entire case incredibly well. This film will make you angry, it’ll make you smile and it will break your heart; the footage of the eventual release of Damien, James and Jimmy is bittersweet, when taken into context on how they were released. It is incredibly powerful and essential viewing.
There’s a solid selection of extras on the Blu-ray, including an audio commentary from Amy Berg, Damien Echols and Lorri Davis, as well as deleted scenes etc.
West of Memphis doesn’t tell the entire story; instead it focuses on the injustice committed, and as such does an incredibly good job. You will sit in disbelief as facts are brought to light, about the convictions and the crimes themselves. Quite honestly, this is a fantastic documentary that is never heavy-handed in its approach and is required viewing.
Going back to my original question as to whether West of Memphis could add anything to this story, well the answer is a resounding yes. Superb viewing.
West of Memphis is release on Blu-ray and DVD by Sony Pictures Classics on August 6th.