56th BFI London Film Festival: ‘West of Memphis’

By Matthew Rodgers Created: October 17, 2012 Last Updated: October 17, 2012
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A powerful chronicle following on from Paradise Lost (1996). (56th BFI London Film Festival)

A powerful chronicle following on from Paradise Lost (1996). (56th BFI London Film Festival)

The HBO documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), is an intense three hour case study of the horrific events which occurred in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993. It is graphic, bruising and raw, as are it’s too less focused follow-ups. Now, after almost two decades, Amy Berg’s update acts as a human compendium to that litigation-heavy-series of documentaries. 

For those unaware of the case specifics, you can watch the entire nine hours of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentation of events, visit Wikipedia, or continue reading the following paragraphs. 

When the bodies of three small children were found bound and mutilated in a remote wooded area of West Memphis, all signs pointed towards a ritual killing. The police were quick to react, and based on the statements of some dubious occult “specialists”, rather than proper police work, arrested a trio of youths based principally on the way they looked. 

Damien Echols (18 years old) was sentenced to death, Jason Baldwin (16 years old) given life imprisonment, and Jesse Misskilley (18 years old), life plus two 20-year sentences. The convictions were achieved largely thanks to the forced testimony of the latter, a boy with severe learning disabilities, coerced into a confession, the taped evidence of which still inexplicably failed to raise questions during the original trial.

A combination of political ambition, corrupt police chiefs, stubborn judges, and general ineptitude, have snowballed the campaign to free the West Memphis Three. Partly funded by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, their production company, Wingnut Films, are behind the movie, this presents new evidence, points the finger of suspicion at suspects you’ll be baffled the police overlooked, and paints an extraordinary tale of humanity against such a harrowing backdrop.

The triumph of Berg’s film is not just the potential end result, but the access granted to those involved. The mother of one of the victims is afforded plenty of screen time, Berg being well-aware that despite the injustices carried out against the West Memphis Three, at the heart of this there is still the unsolved murder of three young boys. Her documentary is imbued with an essence of humanity. 

Of the three, Echols is the most prominent (he acts as Producer), possibly due to his links with the genesis of the film. His wife, Lori Davis, with whom he got married whilst incarcerated, is the emotional driving force of the campaign. It was her that Jackson and Walsh reached out to, and it is through her that we witness the multitude of frustrations associated with challenging decades-old convictions. 

Narrativly, West of Memphis has two huge piques of interest, one of them is clearly the potentially life-saving outcome of the investigations, kept alive by the films many heroes – Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder has clearly invested every ounce of his soul into the cause, and Echols original trial lawyer, Dan Stidham, omnipresent throughout the entirety of the boys’ nightmare, has never waivered in his belief of their innocence. 

Intrigue also manifests in the form of some fresh evidence which pinpoints one of the children’s stepfathers as the potential murderer. The revelations, from the DNA investigations and from the mouth of the accused, are gasp inducing stuff. 

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the entire movie is that we are never given closure, or even an indication that the case remains open. It’s perhaps fitting that for a 20-year mystery which has left so many unanswered questions, that we still remain in the dark once the credits roll on this powerful chronicle.

Rating: 4 / 5

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