January 21, 2012

Sundance Review: West of Memphis

I am sad to inform you that I, a young, impressionable, American youth with some interest in what goes on in this country had next to no knowledge of The West Memphis 3 or the efforts to get them out of prison. I know. It's bad. If you see me on the street, feel free to throw rocks.

But, that in no way hindered my experience when watching West of Memphis, the new documentary directed by Amy Berg and produced by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. Put simply, this is one of the most engrossing and well made documentaries I've seen in a long time.

In 1993, three 8 year old boys are discovered murdered in what appears to be a cult killing. Shortly after, three teenagers, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, are arrested and convicted for this heinous crime. At the time, everybody was fired up and screaming for blood, but as the years progressed and new evidence arose, it became abundantly clear that these three kids had nothing to do with the murders, but the Arkansas courts refused to overturn the sentence. This leads to movements, foundations, you name it, to get the three teenagers, dubbed The West Memphis 3, out of jail and to get them exonerated.

Amy Berg, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Lorri Davis, Damien Echols

The film focuses it's first hour on a recap of all the stuff that most people already know. It's your standard play by play. After that, it veers off into it's own territory as it presents the investigations that Jackson and Walsh funded themselves. And it is incredible! It's a documentary, but it played out like a police procedural. I was glued to my seat, and couldn't look away.

Everything that Berg does just works. Her editing is clever and interesting. Her use of sound is surprising and effective. She uses all the best clips from her interviews so that no one is ever saying something unimportant. The movie never loses track of it's point, and sends it flying home like an arrow to a bullseye.

The film is not subtle about its opinions. It presents hard evidence that Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley are completely innocent, and presents even harder evidence that Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murdered boys, is responsible. Whether or not it is the truth remains to be seen. If the movie proves anything, it's that the justice system in this country is in serious need of an overhaul, and that the guilty party may still be out there. But, Berg and Jackson left me, someone who knew next to nothing of this event, entirely convinced in the end. I believe that Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley are innocent and deserve compensation for the time they spent in jail.

But, luckily, they don't seem to think all that badly about it. At the end of the film, when the director and producers got up for the Q&A, Echols was with them. And he looked fine. He was standing tall, holding his head up high. That standing ovation was well deserved!

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