Review: ‘West of Memphis’
Sometimes Even A Flawed Documentary Can Be Powerful
Friday, January 25, 2013
The case of the West Memphis 3 is the subject of the documentary "West of Memphis" (opening today at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas). Sometimes a documentary is worth seeing even if it's not well made.
The West Memphis 3 have been the subject of multiple films (including the groundbreaking 1996 documentary "Paradise Lost" by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky) and books. The 1993 Arkansas case involves the murder of three 8-year old boys and the 3 teenagers accused of killing them. The teenage boys were convicted of the crime and became the focus of a movement called Free the West Memphis 3. "West of Memphis" is a new documentary that revisits the case. Financed by New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson, the film mixes new interviews and material with archive footage.
In one news clip a reporter asks the step father of one of the dead boys, "What has been so impactful in this case that has changed your mind because that day you believed he was the killer?" To which he says, "That day I believed what the state told me. And it took quite a while being blinded and when I finally got my answers none of the roads led to the three in prison."
And believing what the State said is the root of the problem and the injustice that fuels yet another documentary about the West Memphis 3. The film looks to two horror stories: one being the brutal murder of 3 children and the other about innocent people wrongfully convicted. But we remain deeply frustrated by the final outcome. The State of Arkansas' refusal -- in the face of DNA results and mounting evidence -- to even consider it might've made a mistake remains an offense to both the victims, whose real killer is still free, and to the innocent men who spent more than a decade in prison and have yet to be officially exonerated of their crimes.
The film relies on some previously gathered material and is not as groundbreaking as the 1993 "Paradise Lost." It includes a few clips from "Paradise Lost" but doesn't fully acknowledge how important that film was in initially drawing attention to the case.
"West of Memphis" is directed by Amy Berg. She tackled another documentary involving children and a frustrating lack of justice in "Deliver Us From Evil" about Father Oliver O'Grady and the Catholic Church's tolerance for the priest's pedophilia. In "West of Memphis" she seems overwhelmed by the material she has gathered and doesn't seem to know what material is best to use and which could be chucked. The film includes far too much footage of celebrities who joined the cause of the West Memphis 3. Granted, their support kept the spotlight on the case but they are not really what's important. They seem included because their names (Eddie Vedder, Peter Jackson, Johnny Depp) are a good draw. Only Henry Rollins contributes comments that add to the film when he explains how he saw himself in accused killer Damien Wayne Echols, and how he understood why the victims' parents would initially be angered by his and others' efforts to free the West Memphis 3.
Berg also includes what adds up to a gratuitous amount of crime scene imagery of the 8-year-old victims. The repeated images of the wounds and naked bodies adds nothing to her case or story, and there are points when you feel it is invasive to these young victims and that there should be more respect for them.
The choices Berg makes muddles her story. She has some truly compelling and revelatory information but she doesn't know how to lay it out in an orderly fashion or how to weigh what's really important. She include certain people who tell us years later they remember precise details and times and dates sometimes this feels as weak as some of the State's evidence that she criticizes. She also includes, for instance, a pair of kids talking about how dangerous snapping turtles to demonstrate her point that the bodies could have been mutilated post-mortem by the animals but this seems unnecessary footage since the film proves this point much more forcefully later. But all this additions pad out the film to a 147 minute running time. A tighter, more focused storytelling would have made the film stronger.
The film also suffers from overcutting within scenes. This is a key stylistic mistake in a film that places so much emphasis on uncovering the truth. Cuts that break up an interrogation or a scene where someone is revealing something draws attention to a manipulation on the part of the filmmaker. Even if Berg is not making the cuts to hide or change information it does bring unnecessary artifice into scenes where the focus should really be on what is being said or revealed.
Documentaries can sometimes be worthwhile and powerful even if when flawed. Such is the case with "West of Memphis" (rated R for disturbing violent content and some language). Director Amy Berg does some extraordinary research but doesn't know how to effectively assemble her information or provide the most compelling and enlightening narrative.
Companion viewing: "Paradise Lost Trilogy," "Deliver Us From Evil," "Capturing the Friedmans," "The Thin Blue Line," "The Fog of War," "Crazy Love"