Cinema Review: West of Memphis

west-of-memphis-2012-005-three-perp-shots

 

DIR: Amy Berg WRI: Amy Berg, Billy McMillin PRO: Amy Berg, Lorri
Davis, Damien Wayne Echols, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh DOP: Maryse
Alberti, Ronan Killeen ED: Billy McMillin Cast: Damien Wayne Echols,
Jason Baldwin, Jesse Misskelley, Lorri Davis, Eddie Vedder, Peter
Jackson, Henry Rollins

With an estimated population of 26,245 according to a 2010 census,
West Memphis is the 17th largest city in the state of Arkansas. It has
a strong connection to the Civil War, but is perhaps most notable in
the modern age for the case of the West Memphis Three, who were
convicted in 1994 of the murder of three eight-year-old boys in the
Robin Hood Hills area the year before.

Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin were given
sentences that ranged from life imprisonment plus two 20-year
sentences to the death penalty following their trial for the murders
of Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers, in spite of
some very inconsistent evidence and factual information to support the
prosecution’s case.

With the help of a number of well-known faces, however, a series of
campaigns and appeals were set up in their favour, and as a result of
new forensic evidence presented in the case during July 2007, the
possibility of their name being cleared suddenly became a realistic
possibility.

A successful 2010 decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court regarding
newly produced DNA evidence led to the West Memphis Three reaching a
deal with the prosecutors. On August 19, 2011, all three entered
Alford Pleas, which allowed them to maintain their innocence while
acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them.

While this didn’t quite give them the clean slate that they had been
hoping for, it did finally offer freedom to the accused, and their
extraordinary 18 year journey to redemption is documented in Amy
Berg’s utterly compelling documentary, West Of Memphis.

Though the same subject has been covered quite thoroughly in the HBO
trilogy Paradise Lost, Berg’s film will now give the story the wide
audience that it fully deserves, and with every detail of the case
examined meticulously, it will provide you with all the tools you need
to form a decision about the case by the time the end credits role.

With that in mind, it is important to state that, while the film is
clearly designed to make you believe that these three men are innocent
of this appalling crime, it does offer the families of the victims
(and the prosecuting attorney) ample opportunity to show why they feel
justice was served at the first time of asking.

Indeed, the contrasting emotions felt by those closest to the case do
hit home very early on in the film, but what is perhaps most
remarkable about the story is how involved those on the outside have
become in trying to prove the innocence of the West Memphis Three.

The multi-talented Henry Rollins (a musician and talk show host who
featured prominently in Michael Mann’s Heat) has been a major public
campaigner on their behalf, along with Pearl Jam front man Eddie
Vedder, who has been an outspoken supporter of the movement from day
one.

However, the two interviewees who extended themselves beyond the call
duty are, without question, Peter Jackson and Lorri Davis. Jackson,
seen by many as the one of the world’s leading fantasy filmmakers, is
one of the film’s producers along with his wife and production
partner, Fran Walsh, and has thrown his considerable clout around the
case to an extraordinary extent.

So involved is he in the quest for justice, that he helped to hire a
private investigator to look into the possibility that Terry Hobbs,
stepfather of victim Stevie Branch, may well be a potential suspect in
the murder of Branch and his two friends.

Davis, on the other hand, first became involved in the case when she
corresponded with Echols after seeing the first Paradise Lost
documentary in 1996. From there, she played a major part in helping to
secure their release, and would become romantically involved with
Echols. They married in 1999 while he was still incarcerated, but they
are now free to continue their lives as a couple in the outside world.

With a running time of 147 minutes, it is always difficult to maintain
the attention of audiences on a consistent basis, but at no point is
the film anything less than gripping, and is at various times
endlessly thought-provoking.

Despite being a fact-based account, it also works quite well as a
drama, and the numerous twists and turns in the story (such as the
potential implication of Hobbs by his close friends and extended
family) are as effective as anything you will find coming out of
Hollywood in 2013.

20 years on, the West Memphis Three are still to be fully exonerated
despite the freedom they enjoy today, but West Of Memphis highlights
exactly how the actions that led to their initial conviction were
badly handled, and is a must-see for all those with an interest in a
deeply fascinating subject.

Daire Walsh

147mins
West Of Memphis is released on 29th March 2013

Share

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *