Passing the time – ★★★★
In West of Memphis we get a comprehensive account of the “West Memphis Three”; Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr and Jason Baldwin and how they were wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of three young boys; Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers.
The film premiered back in January 2012 at Sundance so it’s great it will finally see the light of day on our green shores. The case of the WM3 is well documented with three previous films Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Paradise Lost II: Revelations and Paradise Lost III: Purgatory all directed by Joe Belinger and Bruce Sinofsky. With this new documentary we get a summation of the entire case from sentencing to the hopes of a re-trial.
Amy Berg delivers this story and with her previous documentary work including Deliver us from Evil back in 2006, a story concerning the Catholic Church’s covering up of a child rapist priest, she is no stranger to thorny subjects. The case takes us in from the beginning recounting the horrific acts that were carried out on these three young boys. It shows the witch hunt that ensued when it looked like the perpetrators were caught and how through the confession of one of the defendants and what seemed like ties to a satanic ritual they never stood a chance. Echols was sentenced to death, Misskelley,was sentenced to life imprisonment plus two 20-year sentences, and Jason Baldwin was sentenced to life imprisonment.The film then begins to pick apart how the trial, evidence against the defendants and actions of the judicial system were a fiasco from beginning to end. The damming testimony of Misskelley was effectively put in his mouth by the arresting officers and makes for infuriating viewing as they force feed him what to say. The brutal sex acts that were deemed to have been performed on the murdered boys in fact seems to have been the result of turtles known to be thriving in the swamp lands. New evidence continuously comes to light, the accused teenagers were seen elsewhere at the time the murders occurred, no DNA evidence was found connecting them to the crime and as the documentary draws to a close you’re even 99.99% sure who really murdered the children.
What sets the documentary apart is the involvement of so many famous faces. Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh all became involved in these young men’s plight. As Jackson tells us he detests when he senses a bully or people abusing their power so was tireless in his pursuit of their case. The attempt to free the WM3 and have a re-trial with the funds of Fran and Peter and other events was immense. Vedder remarks how he was naive to the task that lay ahead of them but with the help and dedication of Echols’ wife they stayed the course.
I’ll refrain from totally relaying the outcome for those unaware as I was to some degree. My only issue with the documentary is they repeatedly show crime scene photographs of the dead naked children and how they were tied. This is to hammer home the atrocity of the crime committed and arise your outrage for the presumed killer later on but it happens too much and somewhat sensational or exploitative and cheapens their memory.
The star of the piece is Echols, he is quiet and reflective and seems to have let go of the anger and hate one would expect after being wrongfully accused of a crime. The most poignant moment of the film for me is when he simply states how “he doesn’t know what it feels like to walk somewhere”, confined within the prison walls and exercise yard. As with all documentaries there is the issue of repeat viewings, now knowing the story will you ever watch this again? That said it’s one hell of a tale.
US / Directed By: Amy Berg / Written By: Amy Berg, Billy McMillin / 147min / Documentary / Release: 29 March 2013 (Ireland), 25 March 2013 (USA)