(2012)4Perry SeibertAfter the Paradise Lost trilogy, three increasingly definitive documentaries from the team of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, the infamous case of the West Memphis Three would seem to be empty as a filmmaking subject. Director Amy Berg's West of Memphis, however, has one of the three accused men as well as Lord of the Rings mastermind Peter Jackson -- who personally became involved in the efforts to get Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr., and Jason Baldwin freed after their seemingly false conviction for the murder of three little boys -- as producers. They bring a fresh perspective and approach to well-trod material.
Those unfamiliar with the case will find West of Memphis both a thrilling whodunit and a powerfully clear detailing of how the American legal system can go tragically wrong. Made over the course of several years, the picture does a superb job of telling this complicated story. The filmmakers follow the questionable maneuvers the prosecution made during the trial, present how -- thanks in large part to the Paradise Lost movies -- the case became a national cause that garnered support from numerous high-profile celebrities, and spotlight these three young men dealing with their fate.
Taken on its own, it's a first-rate piece of nonfiction filmmaking. However, for those familiar with the case -- and particularly the Paradise Lost trilogy -- the movie can't help but suffer a little from a lack of new information. In addition to covering much of the same ground as Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, a good percentage of the footage in West of Memphis also appears in the final installment of Berlinger and Sinofsky's series -- the highly incriminating testimony given in a deposition by one of the murder victim's fathers being the most memorable.
Thankfully, this case is so loaded with unusual twists, surprise discoveries, and groundbreaking legal battles that the films can each explore different aspects in greater detail. While Purgatory spent a great deal of time focusing on attempts to allow DNA testing on old physical evidence, some of West of Memphis' most startling passages are the in-depth explanations of how prosecutors railroaded the accused in the original trial with bad "expert" witnesses, and how they helped a young drug-addicted criminal clear his record in exchange for false testimony. The filmmakers sit down with that unconvicted purjuror, and his heartfelt apology to the trio is one of the few times in any of the movies about this case when a person directly responsible for this gross injustice expresses any repentance whatsoever.
Since Damien Echols is one of the producers of this project, it's hard to complain about it being repetitive or unnecessary. After all, it's understandable that he would want the chance to tell his own side of events this traumatic, even if his life story has already been told -- seemingly to perfection. West of Memphis is a superb companion piece if you've absorbed the Paradise Lost films, and if you haven't seen those excellent works, it will be even more powerful. However, if this picture and Paradise Lost 3 could be stitched together, that would result in the definitive portrait of this disturbing case.
Although the infamous case of the West Memphis Three has already been the subject of three first-class documentaries from director Joe Berlinger, Amy Berg's West of Memphis again explores the oft-documented incarceration of three teenagers for a triple homicide that many believe they never committed. Co-produced by one of the three supposedly falsely convicted men, West of Memphis lays out the case for their innocence and details how a number of high-profile figures -- including Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, and Natalie Maines -- helped raise money and awareness in order to free the trio. West of Memphis played at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.