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PARK CITY — Late to the party but absolutely essential, Amy Berg‘s West of Memphis delivers a gripping overall picture of the West Memphis 3 wrongful-conviction saga while offering many insights for viewers who have followed it through Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky‘s three Paradise Lost docs. Thorny, blood-boiling and finely made, it deserves a theatrical push.
Controversy precedes the film’s debut here, with reports suggesting a turf war between Berg and Berlinger/Sinofsky. But West gives credit to its predecessor early on, citing Lost as the inspiration for most if not all of the follow-up attention, and tips its hat multiple times during the film. (And it only indirectly slams Paradise Lost 2 for casting doubt on a figure in the case, Mark Byers, who Berg clearly believes is innocent.)
An introductory chapter recounts the gruesome 1993 slaying of three young boys in West Memphis, Ark., and the 1994 conviction of three local teens — noting the detailed confession one made and ending with a freeze-frame in which another, Damien Echols, grins eerily at cameras after his conviction. Any viewer unfamiliar with the case would see no reason to doubt their guilt.
Cut to 15 years later, as we begin to hear details of “the first crowd-sourced investigation in history” — in which people around the world who smelled injustice set out to expose a shoddy and perhaps feloniously dishonest prosecution. Berg first looks at the confession of defendant Jessie Misskelley, playing audio of an interrogation in which the most damning details appear to have been fed to the slow-witted youth by authorities.
The case drew the interest of filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh in 2005, and much of West details private investigations funded by the couple. The discoveries they made over the years are staggering, particularly in the forensics department: Though the killings had been depicted as ritualistic satanic sex slayings in court, a team of respected experts concludes that most of the disfigurement to the bodies likely could be attributed to giant turtles in the ditch where the boys were dumped.
As she recounts advocates’ pursuit of appeals and retrials, Berg focuses on the prison experience of Echols (the only one of the West Memphis 3 to receive the death penalty) and Lorri Davis, a New York woman who began writing to Echols in jail and eventually married him. (Echols and Davis are credited as producers on the film.)
Berg also spends a great deal of time with Pam Hobbs, mother of one of the victims and — as we learn late in the film — ex-wife of the man now seen as a key suspect, Terry Hobbs. As Berg follows the West Memphis 3’s path toward release from prison, she uncovers dramatic revelations about Hobbs’ past and marvels at the fact that local police never treated him as a suspect in the case.
The two-and-a-half-hour film earns every minute of its screen time. While it finds a happy-ish ending for some parties, it closes with new testimony — from a tip-line call made barely a month ago — further suggesting that Terry Hobbs is a killer walking free. The eagerness of Arkansas politicians to treat this as a closed case — one official brags he has finally “put that matter to rest,” provoking disgusted gasps from the audience here — makes West of Memphis the story of an injustice that seemingly will never be made right.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Doc Premieres section
Production companies: WingNut Films, Disarming Films
Director: Amy Berg
Screenwriters: Amy Berg, Billy McMillin
Producers: Amy Berg, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Damien Echols, Lorri Davis
Executive producer: Ken Kamins
Directors of photography: Maryse Alberti, Ronan Killeen
Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Editor: Billy McMillin
Sales: Ken Kamins / Key Creatives
No rating, 146 minutes