*** (out of four)
The moral of the story, among many others in “West of Memphis,” is that there’s always more to the story. This controversial case would have been totally different if not for turtles. (You’ll see.)
A deeply troubling if narratively flawed documentary on the 18-year saga of the West Memphis 3 (previously covered in the three “Paradise Lost” documentaries), “West of Memphis” tackles a true story about which it’s impossible not to have an emotional response.
In a nutshell: Three 8-year-old boys were murdered in Arkansas in 1993, believed to have been sexually mutilated before being hogtied and thrown in a creek. Despite a lack of physical evidence, prosecutors charged Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. in the case. They were suspected of Satanic behavior and eventually convicted for the murders, with Echols sentenced to death while Baldwin and Misskelley received life sentences. As new evidence and recanted testimony gradually emerged, countless people around the world, including celebs like Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins and the Dixie Chicks advocated for the innocence of the West Memphis 3, who were released from prison in late 2011.
With “West of Memphis,” director/co-writer Amy Berg (“Deliver Us From Evil”) packs in a great deal of footage, including important discoveries generated thanks to support from producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh (“The Hobbit” collaborators), while underplaying certain relevant information. Berg’s unsure how to acknowledge the “Paradise Lost” docs and clouds details about the boys’ trial (in the film it’s unclear to what degree, if any, they professed their innocence) as well as the obscure precedent incorporated in the granting of their freedom.
Yet the 2 1/2-hour doc flies by. The story possesses many remarkable examples of horror and resilience, from lawyers’ misrepresentation of evidence and a medical examiner’s embarrassing misidentification of wounds—that’s where the turtles come in—to Echols’ stunning calm and the groundswell of support that put the case on the global radar.
“West of Memphis” ultimately makes a damning case against a different alleged perpetrator of the crime, which is a tragedy no matter the identity of the culprit(s). This story is a chilling document of how one incident can ripple through a community and reveal much about many who weren’t even involved. It’s a whodunit in which truth devastatingly becomes a luxury.
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