West of Memphis (London Film Festival review)
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Peter Jackson has another movie out this holiday season, but you probably haven’t heard about it because it has fewer than one hobbit in it. West of Memphis is the fourth documentary about the so-called West Memphis Three, three teenagers — Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin — who were convicted, for clearly spurious reasons, in Arkansas in 1994 of the murders the previous year of three little boys in what was deemed a “satanic ritual.” This is a story I have been following with increasing rage via Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost films… as has, apparently, Peter Jackson and his creative and life partner Fran Walsh.
When I saw the credit for Jackson’s Wingnut Films pop up at the opening of West of Memphis, I thought little of it — it’s not unusual for a big-name producer to lend his name and clout and money to a project that interests him — but as this latest cataloguing of the ongoing injustice of this case unfolds, and Jackson himself appears to talk about, it’s clear that something more profound is happening. Jackson didn’t just hire and pay private investigators to re-examine crime scenes and hunt for new evidence, he was obviously intimately involved, on a day-to-day level, with the case, conducted with Damien Echols’ wife and legal representative, Lorri Davis. (This movie is most certainly not all about Jackson, but if talking up the connection to him is what gets folks to see this film, I’m okay with that.)
Echols was the only one of the three defendants sentenced to death, so there was a real urgency in proving his innocence. (Berlinger and Sinofsky were not involved in the making of this film, but it was they who first highlighted the railroading of the defendents and the impossibility of their having committed the crime.) Echols is a producer as well, but this is an honest portrait of what has transpired over nearly 20 years: the recap of the trial does not flatter Echols, and in fact makes it easy to see why so many people — from cops and prosecutors on down to the public and the media — was so ready to believe he was guilty. On the other hand, it’s easy to see now, too, how he was just a teenager holding the proceedings in contempt because he knew he wasn’t guilty but was doomed to conviction anyway because he wore black and liked heavy metal.
Public perception and police misconduct take well-deserved raps here, as do larger issues of American injustice as embodied by cyclical violence and economic deprivation, and we’re left with a depressing unlikelihood of true justice ever being served in this case. But there is a small measure of hope. It’s noted that the case of the West Memphis Three may be the “first crowd-sourced investigation,” because much of the legwork, long before Jackson got involved, was accomplished by people who learned of the case via the first Paradise Lost film — which debuted in 1996, just about when the Net did, too — and worked online to raise awareness and contribute tidbits of information vital to the cause of vindicating Misskelley, Echols, and Baldwin (and its via the Web that Jackson and Walsh got involved). It’s an unanticipated side effect of the wiring up of the world, discovering that we can do good in tandem with people on the other side of the planet.
viewed during the 56th BFI London Film Festival