Sundance 2012 Review: ‘West of Memphis’

‘The fact that it leaves me with so much self-reflection shows it’s powerful.’

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

I saw Paradise Lost when I was in college. Coming from the suburbs, I was just so happy to have an indie theater in town, I would see anything, even if it was about murdered children. Now here I am a grown man traveling to the Sundance Film Festival to see the documentary about how those convicted boys got released.

Amy Berg’s West of Memphis recaps the case and details efforts to find new evidence to free Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin. Celebrities like Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins were instrumental in raising funds to employ more thorough detective work and even make a strong case for the real killer.

If you’ve followed the news, you know how this ends. West of Memphis is a compelling drama for two and a half hours and never feels long. The film moves with articulate speakers, clear demonstrations of evidence and theories, human emotion and spiritual growth as both the accused and accusers come to re-evaluate their tragic feelings.

Hearing Rollins talk about how he related to Echols is a thoughtful “there but for the Grace of God go I” insight. Peter Jackson’s perspective on bullying authorities versus actual justice encapsulates the conflict beautifully. Seeing Echols go from a rebellious teen to a mature, composed adult is unfathomable considering he’s spent his life so isolated.

As the investigation gets deeper, it’s rather reassuring to know that there are some intelligent investigators who are capable of getting to the bottom of things. It still takes too long for a resolution, but they exist. Peter Jackson found them and hired them to fix the state’s botched case.

To summarize in brief, the new investigators totally take apart Misskelley’s confession, illustrating the coercion and making a valid point about interrogation versus interview. They expose the staging of a discovery of key evidence, and find evidence that should convict the real killer of the Robin Hood Hills boys.

Even the circumstances of the West Memphis 3’s release are corrupt. The end justifies the means at this point and you have to think, if Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley can move on with their lives, who are we to be indignant that their record still shows conviction for a crime they didn’t commit? Life is bittersweet and if they can take the enlightened path to move forward for good, we can certainly take that lesson into our minor everyday problems

The filmmaking is solid. No fancy tricks, just information and some thematic shots of sunsets and such, but pretty pure to the facts. Berg lets the story tell itself and the fact that it leaves me with so much self-reflection shows it’s powerful.