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West of Memphis Movie Review - -

West of Memphis
 Reviewed by Damien Straker on February 12th, 2013
presents a film directed by Amy Berg
Screenplay by Amy Berg and Billy McMillin
(as themselves) Jason Baldwin, Damien Wayne Echols, 
 Jessie Misskelley, Lorri Davis, Terry Hobbs and Peter Jackson 
 Running Time:
150 minutes
Rating: MA15+
Released: February 14th, 2013



West of Memphis is a documentary of such clarity and precision that its findings will leave you rattled by a heinous crime but also convinced by how methodically researched and argued it is. This is a powerful example of how cinema can be used as an expression of fact and director Amy Berg utilises this strength to persuade and then allow you to draw your own conclusions about the tragic case.

With a story that reads like a Hollywood thriller, and one that has been embraced by celebrities in several different ways, there are numerous facets to the tragedy that are examined in great detail. Although the case has been covered between three HBO films called Paradise Lost, this is one single film that reflects on the police corruption, sensationalism and the way that minorities and people of low economic status are discriminated against.

The film documents a terrible crime in the city of Memphis in 1993, where three boys were found dead. Their bodies were also mutilated and this was said to be part of a satanic ritual. The satanic element of the crime led the police to arrest three teenagers who became known as the West Memphis Three.

Damien Echols' interest in dark magic made him an easy target for the police and was sentenced to death. The other two boys were Jessie Misskelley, Jr., who people said was mentally handicapped, and Jason Baldwin, whose brave decision would affect the lives of the other as much as his own. These two were both given life sentences. The boys would spend eighteen years in prison, but due to the efforts of people fighting for their innocence they were able to enter a complicated plea asserting their innocence but acknowledging the states guilty ruling too. They were released from prison the very same day.

The documentary is insightful towards the inconsistencies of policing methods and the evidence used to convict the teens. Police interview recordings show how they interrogated rather than interviewed the boys and then coached the confessions from them, drawing the answers they wanted to hear. Years later, witnesses also admitted to lying and changing their stories too. Another important lapse is the discovery of the murder weapon, the knife. Its location was predetermined so early that the media was alerted before it was found. The markings on the bodies are also said to be from an animal like a turtle, not the knife.

A crucial turning point in the documentary is when the film argues persistently about the suspicion of Terry Hobbs. He was the stepfather of one of the victims, Stevie Edward Branch. Venturing onto Hobbs' own personal blog, he is still adamant that there is only speculation about the murders, citing an article from the father of one of the boys, who revokes the claims made against Hobbs. I wonder what the father will make of this film. It covers Hobbs' own violent history, including domestic assault, as well as his constant passivity towards questions over his flawed alibi. By the end of the film I was certain he was guilty.

Numerous famous people also believed in the innocence of these teens too, the most prominent of which is filmmaker Peter Jackson. He helped arrange for sophisticated legal aids to be brought in and to reassess the case. Other celebrities like Johnny Depp and various singers addressed the issue. It is also interesting to note how this story is being addressed by Hollywood too in a feature film.

It's not hard to see why. The crux of this story could be read as a feel good story about bravery and the determination for the truth. But it is also a sad story about damaged relationships, including Hobbs' own daughter Amanda, who had a fractured life. While in gaol, Damien started a relationship with Lorri Davis from the outside. She supplied him with books and they decided to wed before he was free.

Furthermore, the film is also an examination of the impulsiveness of small, insulated communities to demand answers, whether they are accurate or not. One man interviewed states: "The community was relieved to have someone behind bars. They didn't have to be scared anymore". I hope these layers, along with the fear of the unknown and religious fanaticism, aren't lost in the fictional adaptation.

It is difficult to state what makes the documentary so compelling. The true story speaks for itself: it's embedded in many complex twists and examples corruption and the failure of the justice system. But it is the coherency of the material, the clarity of the filmmaker's arguments, including how this content is presented through techniques like juxtaposition, which casts this as a thoroughly researched piece. It supplies two of the most important staples of any documentary: it informs and convinces.


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