West of Memphis

West of Memphis ★★★★

2-Minute Review:

I wanted to give this 5 stars just for the principles of the story, but in terms of just the quality of the film-making, it's probably a bit less. The Letterboxd writeup is uncharacteristically good and accurate. This is a documentary about, more than anything, an absolute top-to-bottom case of willful incompetence across all stages of the Arkansas ("ar-kan-saw" for those outside the US) criminal justice system. Those apparent victims of this miscarriage of justice are the famed "West Memphis 3", but the doc is sure to spend time focusing on getting justice for the actual 3 victims, the young boys who were murdered and whose killer apparently remains free. The case has been ongoing since 1993, with three famous documentaries made about it and a LOT of attention from celebrities, but this doc is really the one to put it all together, and is made with the direct involvement of everyone on both sides. Highly recommended.


For the Real Cinephiles:

May 5th, 1993: Three eight-year-old boys are brutally killed in West Memphis, a small town in the Deep South of Arkansas, USA. Police speculation leads to them going to an outside consultant, who alleges that this looks like a Satanic ritual. Did I mention that we're in the Deep South? This is where people believe in the literal truth of the Bible, that angels are real, and have never met an actual Satanist (who mostly just are anti-authoritarians and sue for the right to put provocative statues up next to Christian ones...A-level trolling) but live in fear of devil worship and (other, non-Christian) cults. Yeah, well, all that is pretty impactful to the way the case was carried out.

The 1996 documentary Paradise Lost covers how this small town quickly gathers with a witch-hunt mentality to blame three rebel teens for the murders. They wear black clothes and listen to metal and sketch Satanic symbols in their notebooks. They hate the cops and have attitude problems. They don't fit in to their good 'ol boy Southern community... must be murdering Satanists. They are convicted with no shred of physical evidence, almost entirely on the strength of circumstances and a few sketchy bits of "witness" testimony. The case is so obviously skewed, it attracts a documentary crew, and this first film goes down in history as not only a great documentary, but one that stirs up enough new evidence to get appeals going for a re-trial.

West of Memphis brushes over most of this fairly quickly, seeming to assume you've already watched the earlier doc or have some familiarity with the case. I think the biggest weak point of the film is that for those unfamiliar, it's not made exactly clear why the community convicted these guys in the first place. Or what attracted so many actors and musicians to their defense. Early on, Johnny Depp was a big proponent for the WM3, as well as Metallica. They seem to have recognized a bit of themselves in the teens... miscreants who felt unwanted in their community, who got into trouble, who were misunderstood. There seems to be a bit of "it could easily have been me getting ramrodded into prison if I hadn't caught the breaks I did..."

More joined them as the original HBO doc crew made two follow ups. Paradise Lost 2 picks up four years later, when the HBO filmmakers have gotten fully personally-invested in the case. They recognize that their film made many doubt the guilt of the WM3, but the State prosecution is not going to let them go unless there's another suspect. The film raises all kinds of questions about Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the boys. More musicians flock to the cause, including Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam, Henry Rollins and Black Flag, and the LOTR team of Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Phillipa Boyens. They all participated heavily in this doc as well, with Walsh and Jackson producing it. Much of the suspicion over Byers seems to have veered overboard into its own kind of witch-hunt though, so again, this doc kind of skims over it. Whereas watching the first Paradise Lost before this one would be helpful, I don't think you need to see the second.

In 2011, the original documentary filmmakers were putting together Paradise Lost 3, and at the same time, this film was being made that gives an overview of the whole case and focuses largely on the primary defendant, Damien Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis. Lorri become invested in Damien's case after seeing the first doc, and began writing to him. He had been a troubled teen who committed petty crimes and even went to a mental institution for a few months, but after 6 years in prison, at 24, he matured into a thoughtful, reasoned, even artistic individual. He wrote often to supporters, including Lorri, and parts of his letters were often read in public for their depth and artfulness. More so than the other defendants, Damien helped to attract writers, singers, actors, and musicians like Patti Smith, Catherine Keener, Disturbed, The Dixie Chicks, Nick Cave, and Warren Ellis. And of course, Lorri became so enamored with him that they then married in prison.

This film is steered by Lorri as she recounts her involvement in the case, her perspective on how the journey has been for Nichols. It focuses mostly on the time since Paradise Lost 2, that is from '99 to 2012. This means that after the recaps of the major events (essentially the first 60 minutes of this film), it gets involved in a lot of the legal efforts to get a retrial. This is based heavily on DNA evidence, but also on new testimony and recanted eyewitness testimony from before. And of course, the speculation is always out there: if these guys didn't do it, WHO DID? The film thoroughly debunks the idea of a Satanic ritual killing, and so if you watch much true crime, you know to look first at the people closest to the three boys, something the police never really did.

I won't spoil the revelations of this film, and don't want to contribute to any further witch-hunt mentality, but I'll say that the movie does end up covering some investigation and deposition material that is pretty convincing as far as who committed the crime. Sadly, the State of Arkansas is, as always, more interested in protecting the asses of all their people than of finding the actual criminal. They don't even want to look at new evidence, and just want all the pressure from the WM3 supporters to go away, and for all their missteps to be swept under the rug. Like most good docs, this one is pretty infuriating. And I'd lie if I didn't say I was quite moved at the end. No spoilers, but there is a sort of resolution.

You could watch all three Paradise Lost docs, and I think the last one covers a lot of the same ground this one does (I haven't seen it). It apparently also digs into something not presented here: probable collusion between the original jury foreman, the state prosecutor, and the trial judge! I don't know if my heart can take that level of infuriation, but there's still enough to go around here. Regardless of your feelings on whether the WM3 are guilty or not, one thing is pretty inarguable: they did not get a fair trial and on that basis, should never have been convicted. Their case does not meet the standard of "guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt", which is designed exactly so that we DON'T have juries convicting people more because they're fuck-ups who don't fit in than because they're guilty.

This doc goes light on the reasoning behind the community, on digging into the questions of morality and humanity and philosophy that are at the core of this messed up Southern town. It also doesn't dig much into the co-defendants, besides showing that Jason Baldwin was Echols' best friend, a kid two years younger whose decisions in the case have been driven by the fact that the State is trying to execute his best friend. And two years even younger, we just know that Jessie Misskelley has an IQ of 72, barely hung out with the older kids, and was mostly just used by police to coerce a confession. We know little of their lives in prison or their thoughts and motivations besides. I do wish this doc had focused a little less on Echols and been more well-rounded, though it's obvious that he's become the real celebrity and the nexus for people to rally around, particularly as he was framed as the ring-leader by the State and the only one to get the death penalty.

A bit long, but it covers 20 years, this doc is really a must-watch for anyone who appreciates the true-crime genre. The descriptions of the killings are not for the faint-hearted, and there are a few missteps here (particularly in the speculative evidence towards the end), but it's probably a better watch than the three Paradise Lost docs. There are enough celebrities on screen to keep people interested who might otherwise avoid docs, and there's a real heartfelt personal story at the core. I grew up with this story, watching the first doc when it came out. I also felt like "there but for the better grace of God go I...." I never hoped for any justice to happen, so avoided following it the past ten years, but I'm glad I caught up with it here.

Also, if you want a bit more spoilery info about what happened after the end of this film, there is SOME follow-up here:

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