The case of the West Memphis 3, in which a trio of teenagers were convicted of fatally torturing and tossing three schoolkids into an Arkansas creek, has now been the subject of four feature-length films (including three by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofksy). That’s more movies than I’ve seen about Watergate, the Lindbergh-baby kidnapping and the JFK assassination combined.
Directed by Amy Berg and co-produced by one of the defendants, “West of Memphis” was made 18 years after the murders and thus contains recent evidence and emotional resolutions that were missing from the three “Paradise Lost” films by Berlinger and Sinofsky. Yet it’s still incomplete. One of the most important missing pieces is a critical examination of why this celebrity-driven crusade is more worthy of our sustained attention than thousands of other wrongful-conviction cases.
These are the basic facts: After the bound bodies of three young boys were found floating in a creek in a Memphis suburb, the local police arrested misfit teenagers Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols. Because black-clad Echols had notebooks full of satanic drivel and because mentally deficient Misskelley confessed after several hours of interrogation, the three teens were convicted. Echols, the ostensible leader of the group, got the death penalty.
Yet the portions of Misskelley’s confession excerpted here make it clear he was coerced, and somehow the case became a cause celebre, with rock stars such as Eddie Vedder and movie stars such as Johnny Depp implying that the teens were persecuted for their nonconformity. That may be true, but the suspects’ relationship to the community is among the many contextual elements that are so flattened in this fourth installment that we feel like we’re watching an overlong true-crime television episode and not a movie.
While the celebrity angle and Echols’ jailhouse marriage to a supportive stranger are taken at face value, the documentary does a thorough job of examining new DNA evidence and sniffing out an alternate suspect (albeit not the same one fingered in “Paradise Lost 3”).
Because “West of Memphis” was released to coincide with a change in the prisoners’ status, a seemingly positive outcome is offset by a seemingly unresolved mystery. But making us sit through a fifth movie would be a miscarriage of justice.
What “West of Memphis” • Two stars out of four • Rating R • Run time 2:27 • Content Disturbing violent content and some strong language • Where Plaza Frontenac