In 1994, teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelly were convicted for the 1993 murders of three eight-year-old children: Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers. Two years later, HBO aired the documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. That film documented the crime and its aftermath, casting doubt on the guilt of the three young men convicted. Paradise Lost also thrust the case into the spotlight, attracting the attention of people around the world, including major celebrities such as Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, and Henry Rollins.
As support began growing for the West Memphis Three (with Echols on death row and both Baldwin and Misskelly serving life sentences), everyone from legal and investigative professionals to amateur sleuths began to question whether justice had been served. Two more Paradise Lost documentaries were made, Revelations in 2000 and Purgatory in 2011. Each chronicled the fight to exonerate the West Memphis Three.
West of Memphis is the latest documentary to cover the case. The film is not connected to the original Paradise Lost documentaries. West of Memphis was produced by Damien Echols himself, along with his wife Lorri Davis, and filmmaker Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings). West of Memphis covers much of the same material as the Paradise Lost documentaries, adding some new interviews and hypotheses about what may have really happened the day the three little boys were murdered.
I have mixed feelings about West of Memphis. Most of the specifics of the case were covered in greater detail in the superior Paradise Lost trilogy. Seeing another recap of the events will feel tedious to anyone who has seen even one of those movies. However, anyone whose interest was piqued by those earlier films will likely be interested in the new tidbits offered in this doc. New interviews with trial witnesses and the findings of crime experts paint a very different picture than the one presented during the original trial. Particularly compelling is the depiction how snapping turtles, local to the area, could have affected the crime scene prior to the bodies being found.
West of Memphis even puts forth a theory about who may have committed the crime. Sadly this is where the film goes too far. Rather than merely suggesting a possibility, the film basically points the finger at one person. As compelling as some of their evidence may be, it is clearly a biased one-sided take on what happened, specifically meant to make the audience believe this person committed the crime.
West of Memphis works best when it is examining the crime and speaking with those who were either involved or were present at the time. It’s interesting to see how perspectives change over time. The amazing thing about the case of the West Memphis Three is the public activism that was sparked by the case. That in itself is a story worth documenting. Unfortunately, West of Memphis does not have a lot of new insight or information that was not already covered in the Paradise Lost series. Those films went beyond the case to explore the sociological aspects of mass hysteria and conformity. This film is focused primarily on crime itself, most specifically on Echols. Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly were not involved in new interviews and are mostly shown in archival footage (until the end of the film).
The Blu-ray includes a significant amount of extras, with nearly 90 minutes of deleted footage. Damien Echols himself, along with director Amy Berg and co-producer Lorri Davis, provide an informative commentary track. What’s great about this track is getting Echols’ personal take on everything. He has clearly studied his own case very closely. He knows details about nearly everyone involved, including what they did at the time and where they ended up in the future. He is also forthcoming about what happened after he was arrested, the trial, and his life on death row. Other features include some red carpet Q&A at the Toronto International Film Festival, and some additional tidbits about Echols’ past.
The audio and visual presentation is excellent. New footage was shot on HD video and is always sharp. The Arkansas landscape is particularly striking, creating a real-life look with lush, but muted tones. Archival footage, which is culled from various television and video sources, naturally looks dated, but is watchable. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless soundtrack consists primarily of talking-head interviews, but does open up for some ambient background noise and snippets of musical concert footage.
For anyone who has not seen any of the Paradise Lost films, West of Memphis provides a great overview of one of the most troubling legal cases in recent history. If already familiar with the case, this film may seem like rehash in large part, though it does have some new information to offer. What would be great to see in the future is what post-prison life is like for the three. The bittersweet ending of the three being released via an “Alford Plea,” they plead guilty, but maintained their innocence, leaves a hollow feeling of injustice both for them and the three murdered little boys. One thing this film does make clear is that this story is not over.