Doc-ing in Memphis

West of Memphis
(USA/New Zealand, 147 min.)
Dir. Amy Berg, Writ. Amy Berg, Billy McMillin
Photo by Olivia Fougeirol, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
“We the filmmakers find the defendant guilty on all counts.” Director Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil) puts American’s legal system on trial in West of Memphis, and the documentary delivers a verdict that satisfies everyone and no one. West of Memphis arrives at this thesis by deliberating the sensational trial of the three men known as the West Memphis Three. Deliberate or not, Berg’s examination of the case is a provocative and compelling condemnation of a system run amok.

The gist of the WM3 case is that three young boys were brutally murdered in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas. Discovered bound and naked in a creek, the boys were presumed to be victims of a violent/sexual/ritualistic attack by Satanists. One young man in the area, Damien Echols, fit the profile of somebody who “might be capable of something like that.” Along with two other young men, Jason Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin, Echols was tried and convicted for the crimes.

The film outlines the understandable emotional sensitivity of such a proceeding, as Berg interviews parents of the victims who outline a hazy period of grief and anger. The rumors about the perceived unorthodox nature of the crime, however, spilled the anger into the community, which, fuelled by a daytime TV-like moral panic, created a mob mentality that cast the three defendants as Satanic menaces to society. As Echols’s wife, Lorri Davis, explains, the West Memphis Three were essentially convicted by the court of public opinion and not by a watertight case of evidence.

West of Memphis moves from the trial to a second act that chronicles Davis’s struggle to prove her husband’s innocence. The case sparks great media attention and catches the eye of celebrity supporters like Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, and most notably, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. The husband and wife filmmaking team behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy give Davis invaluable support. Jackson explains the convolutions of the plot, which unravels like a thriller plotted for the cinema. (Appropriately enough, the tale of the West Memphis Three will be dramatized in the upcoming Atom Egoyan film Devil's Knot.) Rather than overwhelm the film with their star status, the addition of Vedder, Jackson, et al (Walsh never appears onscreen) illustrates the life this case saw when it was allowed to travel beyond the scene of the crime. Berg leaves little room to question the innocence of the West Memphis Three, but the film shows that they probably would have stayed behind bars had a roster of celebrities not taken an interest in their case, since not everyone can afford the pursuit of justice.

Thanks to a crackerjack team of investigators for the defense, Davis et al build a strong case that calls into doubt the guilt of the West Memphis Three. West of Memphis builds a compelling alternative theory to explain the errors in judgement and it provides a persuasive, well-supported hypothesis to elucidate a plausible charge of guilt for the potential killer. One cannot help but feel appalled at the gross imbalance between the detective work undertaken by the group of filmmakers and the lackadaisical investigation performed by the state. Likewise, the film presents such a convincing alternate theory that one can only watch and see the Three caught in a game of politics as the state officials choose to hold on to a dead end, rather than risk their popularity in the pursuit of justice. West of Memphis is investigative journalist in its most cinematic form.

There’s a fitting symmetry to this tale that sees the trio tried and convicted by a Helen Lovejoy-ish mob mentality, only to be freed by a collective awakening. West of Memphis shows the power that can be achieved when a group of people choose to question the facts with which they are presented and to challenge the systems that allow injustice to occur. Even more disturbing, though, is seeing the gaps in logic and evidence that were overlooked during the initial trial, yet ineffectual in creating legal doubt once they came to light.

This is a great documentary. Berg packs an ample backstory into the film while deconstructing the case retrospectively with fresh eyes and new ideas. West of Memphis is well-researched and argumentatively sound, but the end result is unsettling.

The film, unfortunately, omits a full explanation of a crucial legal tidbit that proves to be the crux of freeing the Three. It’s a tad confusing to see such a contradictory clause act as the saving grace in the affair, since little justice seems to be served by the film's end. The ambiguity of the Three’s plea, however, offers a convenient route for discussing the obvious gaps in the case, and for underscoring the film’s philosophical musing that guilt and innocence seem to play a minor role in America’s judicial system. By the film’s end, it seems that culpability resides only in a legal clause. This trial resulted in lose-lose situation for all parties, since the only winner seems to be the real killer who got away scot-free.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★) 

West of Memphis plays in Ottawa at The ByTowne until Feb. 28.