West of Memphis
A diligent, complex and justly indignant documentary about a grisly triple murder case
The triple murder of Christopher Byers, Steven Branch and Michael Moore in Arkansas in 1993 was one of those crimes that’s liable to make you lose the will to be part of the human race if you dwell on it too much – and that’s before you even get to the heinous miscarriage of justice that followed it. The victims were all eight years old. They had been tied up, mutilated and probably sexually assaulted. Understandably, the small community was keen for a conviction. Police quickly picked up three oddball teenagers: learning-disabled Jessie Misskelley, and bookish, Goth-inflected friends Damien Echols and Charles Baldwin. On scant to non-existent evidence, the three were convicted and sentenced – Misskelley and Baldwin to life imprisonment, Echols to death.
Apart from its extremity, the case is interesting for the ongoing role played by filmmakers and famous individuals in the effort to have it re-examined. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky covered it in their three Paradise Lost documentaries; a feature film from Atom Egoyan looms next. Here, with Peter Jackson as producer, Amy Berg (Oscar-nominated for Deliver Us From Evil) examines the history and current state of the case, as well as strongly implicating a new suspect. There’s something unsettling about the heavy involvement of celebrities in this matter, and the resulting popularity of films about it, but that’s hardly Berg’s fault. Her film, which focuses mostly on Echols’ legal ordeal, is diligent, complex and justly indignant.
An odd taste is left, however, by the fact that she doesn't acknowledge the previous work done by Berlinger and Sinofsky. Even if, as interviews imply, there’s some degree of bad blood, Berg must be conscious that those films laid the groundwork for her own and got all those famous people interested in the first place. In the course of meditating on justice and fair representation, she might have tipped her hat.
Selected release from Fri 21 Dec.