West of Memphis (2012)

*. Right around the halfway point of West of Memphis, a feature documentary dealing with the case of the West Memphis Three, producer Fran Walsh remarks how “this crime was not nearly as convoluted nor so twisted as the public were led to believe.”
*. On the particular point of the crime itself this may be true. A closer look at the evidence suggests that the murder of the three boys probably wasn’t a sex killing, or a case of Satanic ritual abuse, but rather just an act of rage. However, the case did become convoluted and twisted. Hence much of the fascination it has had.
*. Of course if you ask whether the imagination dwells the most on a crime solved or a crime unsolved the answer is going to be the latter. The hold on our imagination of cases running from Jack the Ripper to JonBenet Ramsey won’t let go because they are mysteries that have never been explained. There had already been a three-part documentary made on this case (the third part of which came out just before this film), and Atom Egoyan would make a dramatic feature out of it a year later. This is the sort of thing that happens when there’s no closure.
*. It seems to me that West of Memphis is really two movies that don’t always fit that well together. The first is the story of the three young men who were accused of the crime and their long legal struggle for freedom. The second is an invesitgation into the murders and who might have been responsible.
*. The first story I didn’t find that well handled. There’s too much emphasis placed on Demian Echols and his wife Lorri Davis. Echols was actually a co-producer on the film. The other two members of the WM3, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin, are only briefly heard from at the end. In sum, I didn’t think there was anything new here, and while I have all the sympathy in the world for Echols, who ironically comes across as one of the most normal people we meet in the film, I didn’t find any of this material that interesting.
*. The second story is more complicated, being the unsolved mystery I mentioned earlier. Basically, the case is made for Terry Hobbs being the killer, and some of this made me a bit uncomfortable. There is evidence presented that Hobbs was a bad person, and I certainly wouldn’t be shocked if he were responsible. I don’t want to seem like I’m defending him. On the other hand, there’s nothing like a rock-solid case against him and a lot of the evidence is circumstantial or hearsay. A film about the miscarriage of justice in a rush to judgment shouldn’t be this quick to point fingers. At the end of the day Hobbs is still only a person of interest.
*. What I found most interesting about West of Memphis is that it’s a story of guilt and innocence, but not in the expected way. It’s the system that is being judged and the guilt is on the part of the authorities who not only did nothing to pump the brakes on this (literal) witch hunt but who actively encouraged it. It’s depressing how we see all the minor players in the drama recanting their testimony and confessing their sins but none of the men who actually had any power over what was going on. This is, sadly, how it often works. Admitting to anything leads to liability, and that’s something no one wants to risk.
*. While I’m in broad agreement with the stance that’s taken, judged as a documentary I think West of Memphis is only just fair. It tells a complex, convoluted story and I found the movie had a tendency to track that story’s wanderings, slipping in and out of focus as it moved about. Still, as a record of an infamous case and its injustices it’s an important film with a message for all of us.

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