Reviews > Documentary
Olivia Fougeirol/Sony Pictures Classics

West of Memphis

Documentary

Issue: "Taking a scalpel to the First Amendment," Feb. 9, 2013

In 1993, searchers for three missing 8-year-old boys found their bodies in a drainage ditch in West Memphis, Ark. Investigators believed that because of the injuries to the boys’ bodies, the murders were the result of a satanic ritual. A year later, a jury convicted three West Memphis teenagers, one of whom had journaled about the occult, of the murders. The court sentenced Jessie Misskelley Jr., 18, and Jason Baldwin, 16, to life in prison, and Damien Echols, 19, to death.

As years passed, new evidence showed the crimes were likely not satanic. Witnesses recanted, more evidence appeared, and it became clear that local authorities had botched the case at key points. The release of the “West Memphis Three” became a cause célèbre. In 2011, the three were released from prison.

West of Memphis is the fourth major documentary on the crime, but this time the filmmakers have the benefit of new DNA evidence. The film convincingly depicts who the real killer was, but because of the special plea deal the West Memphis Three took for their release from prison, the case is officially closed. (Warning: the film includes graphic crime scene footage of the boys’ bodies.)

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HBO’s documentaries on the crime—Paradise Lost, Paradise Lost 2, and Paradise Lost 3—depict the wrongful convictions as partly a result of a Bible Belt community looking for the occult under every rock. But West of Memphis notes that everyone in America was obsessed with the occult at the time—even Oprah. Director Amy Berg shows that these convictions could have happened in any town, not just a Southern evangelical one. 

But the film has a major weakness: Berg allows the self-congratulatory celebrities who made the case their cause onto the screen. The filmmakers interview Peter Jackson, the film’s producer, about his generous investment in the case. Later Eddie Vedder, the lead singer of Pearl Jam, talks about the “endurance” he needed for this cause. Good for Vedder, but who cares?

You leave the film wanting healing not just for the victims’ families and the wrongly accused, but also for West Memphis, where you see poverty, abuse, and broken families. The celebrities didn’t sound like they were sticking around for that. 

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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