'West of Memphis': Trio still seeking justice ★★★

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'West of Memphis'

'West of Memphis' (January 16, 2013)

For astonishing injustice put to rest, at long last, the moviegoer has at least two options. One: "Les Miserables." And two: "West of Memphis," a strong, blood-boiling documentary from director Amy Berg, who made the similarly fine "Deliver Us From Evil," about a defrocked Catholic priest's appalling crimes and those of his protectors.

In 1993 in West Memphis, Ark., the bodies of three preteen boys were found naked and hogtied, in a drainage ditch. One of the boy's genitals had been mutilated. Three young men from area were convicted of murder, and the sinister overtones of the scene suggested a satanic ritual conducted by those who became known as the West Memphis Three.

The three young men — Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols — were voted "most likely to have done it," as ex-probation officer Jerry Driver says on camera. But does that sound like ironclad evidence?

Eventually the wheels of justice began spinning in a new direction. In 2005, many years into the three convicted killers' sentences, "The Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson and his partner, Fran Walsh, saw the first of three HBO documentaries ("Paradise Lost," part one, first shown in 1996) arguing that the real killer was still at large. Jackson and Walsh joined a roster of celebrities — Johnny Depp and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines-Pasdar of the Dixie Chicks among them — crusading to free the West Memphis Three.

Dubious evidence; suspicious confessions; conveniently located "poor white trash" (Echols' words) to take the rap: The case stank from the beginning, Berg's film argues.

DNA evidence years later pointed to a vastly different scenario, implicating one of the victims' stepfathers. Lorri Davis began corresponding with Echols and soon became personally invested in the case. She and Echols married while he was on death row. Jackson, an interview subject in the film, joined Davis and Echols as producers on "West of Memphis." I certainly bought Berg's perspective, though I wonder if her film appears weaker because of her chosen collaborators.

On the other hand: DNA evidence is tough to dismiss. Coming on the heels of "The Central Park Five," "West of Memphis" caps a provocative few weeks at the movies for stories of the wrong men in the wrong place at the worst possible time.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'West of Memphis' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating:
R (for disturbing violent content and some language)
Running time: 2:27
Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre

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