Movie Review: West of Memphis (2012)
I’d heard good things about “West of Memphis,” the documentary by Amy Berg detailing the arrest, trial, and conviction of three young men, Damien Wayne Echols, 18, Jason Baldwin, 16, and Jessie Misskelley, 17, in the 1993 deaths of three young boys, who were found naked, bound and mutilated in a shallow pond in the Robin Hood Hills section of West Memphis, Ark. Two of the young men were sentenced to life in prison; one (Echols) was sentenced to death.
The evidence against them? The confession of one, Misskelley, who was questioned for 12 hours by the police, and who later recanted. Some eyewitness testimony from others, later recanted. Direct evidence? Nothing. DNA evidence? No. Hysteria over the crime helped. The focus of the investigation became Echols after more than month because the crime was perceived to be a Satanic crime and Echols was perceived to be a Satanist, even though he was probably just a Goth kid.
Although we don’t really know much about him, do we? Instead, the doc strings us along for two and a half hours with various guesses about the crime and wringings of hand over the miscarriage of justice and footage of Lorri Davis, who married Echols when he was in prison, reading love letters from him. And, yes, you read that right: two and a half hours. I know the story of the West Memphis Three is a tragedy twice over, but it took Steven Spielberg only a half-hour longer to present the entirety of the Holocaust. Can’t a brother get a film editor in here?
At first “West of Memphis” is a horrific crime story (which it is), then it’s a story of a horrific miscarriage of justice (which it seems to be), then it becomes a kind of detective story—if these kids didn’t do it, who did?—and different people become involved in the investigation and the attempt to right the crime after the crime. San Francisco’s Dennis Riordan becomes the most prominent of the lawyers, but even he winds up with a backseat in the doc to all of the celebrities who made the case of the West Memphis Three their cause: Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Natalie Maines, Johnny Depp, and Peter Jackson. But how did they all get involved? Did Rollins start it? And did he bring the others along? It feels like that’s the case but we don’t know for sure. Here’s the question I have that the documentarians don’t seem interested in answering: Of all the miscarriages of justice in the world, how did so many work so long on this one?
That’s the oddity. We have a two-and-a-half-hour doc that still leaves us with fundamental questions. When did doubts about the boys’ guilt first arise? Immediately? What were the West Memphis Three thinking back in 1994 as they were on trial? Did they think they would get off? Did they realize the gravity of the situation? Instead, they’re silent, background figures in their own story. They’re virtually unknowable. But the doc churns over (and over) some of the same material. It draws out the drama and thus draws out the doc. You feel it happening. You feel the manipulation.
“West of Memphis” ultimately disappoints for not being more concise, for not seeing the wider picture, for not answering fundamental questions despite its length. Who doesn’t disappoint? Eddie Vedder. A talking head, he comes off here as sober, intelligent and thoughtful.