After Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s excellent Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries, you have to wonder if there’s anything left to reveal about the West Memphis 3 miscarriage of justice. That depends on whether you’ve seen the previous movies, to which Amy Berg’s West of Memphis adds a scot-free prime suspect, more reason for outrage and not much else.
But if you haven’t seen the Paradise Lost trilogy, West of Memphis is an expert condensing of the facts and how they’ve been distorted and ignored by Arkansas’ judicial system. The West Memphis 3 case is a landmark example of how justice can go terribly wrong, and continues to do so since the guilty party (whoever that is) can’t be arrested because the case is irrevocably closed. Whatever justice was accomplished didn’t come from the courts but solely from pressure by concerned citizens, which is the closest thing to a moral this story possesses.
In 1989, three young boys disappeared in West Memphis. Their bodies were discovered hog-tied and drowned in a creek. Forensic details noted sexual mutilation that seemed to point to a satanic cult slaying. Suspicion quickly led to three teens known for looking and behaving strangely. The teens were tried, convicted and sentenced to prison; the alleged ringleader, Damien Echols, to death.
Over the next 18 years, the case against those teenagers fell apart, undone by volunteering investigators and pressure to find the truth from celebrities like director Peter Jackson, Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins and Natalie Maines, all of whom appear in this film. Yet no matter how much evidence is recanted or enhanced, making clear the teens’ innocence (the three were released in 2011 under a rule allowing them to assert their innocence while acknowledging there was enough evidence for conviction), the judge and prosecutor wouldn’t reopen the case: That would be tantamount to admitting they were wrong.
It’s a labyrinthine case with damning lies, red herrings and wrongful suppositions at each turn. Berg does a fine job of navigating viewers through it without seeming too repetitious of the Paradise Lost trilogy. Thanks to Jackson’s involvement as a producer, Berg has time and access Berlinger and Sinofsky didn’t, allowing expansion of whatever material that’s repeated.
But the main difference between this movie and the preceding trilogy is the third-act exploration of the person who most likely committed the crimes. How that person literally gets away with murder is an indictment of small-town justice and small-minded people seeking fast vengeance or political advantage without concern for the truth.
The process is nearly as frightening as the idea of three boys disappearing, and may happen in America just as often. In the end it won’t matter if this is the fourth movie about the same subject; you can never learn its lessons often enough.