Film Review: West of Memphis

Dir. Amy Berg
Score: 6.6

So, let’s go back to 1993, in the small Arkansas city of West Memphis (which could also be called Far East Arkansas for where it’s positioned in the state). On a warm evening in May three eight-year-old boys went missing and were later found dead thrown into a small creek, beaten, sexually assaulted and hog-tied. The police, in a frenzy to find the killers, eventually alighted upon three hapless teens (“white trash” as one of them refers to themselves), who had in the past shown a propensity for satanic imagery and speed metal music. These three quickly got railroaded by the police — with the unfortunate help of a coerced confession by Jessie Misskelley, the slowest-witted member of the three — into heavy prison sentences for two and, for Damien Wayne Echols, considered the brainy leader of the pack, death row.

The case eventually became a cause du celeb with the help of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofky’s excellent, groundbreaking documentary trilogy (known as the “Paradise Lost” films), and Echols’ unflinching charisma during the case. His penchant for iconoclasm and his refusal to kowtow to the authorities even as he was being wrongly persecuted drew the attention and devotion of an impressive array of activist celebs, including everyone from Henry Rollins to Eddie Vedder (a point the film happily uses to bequeath a lot of facetime to its commiserating cast of famous folks). Fortunately, the boys also garnered attention from filmmaker Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh, who helped finance numerous DNA tests that many years later ultimately proved to exonerate the trio, even as it pointed a significant finger in the direction of the one of the victim’s stepfathers, Terry Hobbs.

So what is it, exactly about these boys that got such world-wide attention? Rollins, the venerable punk prototype might have put it most succinctly when he suggested Echols sneering attitude towards authority and dark, deadpan sense of humor reminded him exactly of a kid like himself. But I suspect there’s more at work here.

As a companion piece to Ken and Sarah Burns’ The Central Park Five, the films more or less augment each other’s main argument: Mob justice, as meted out by the media in giant, rating-bonanza bonuses, is every bit as corruptive and misplaced now as it was when it was small groups of disaffected cowboys formed lynch parties to mete out justice as they saw fit.

We are all conditioned to drink deeply from the careless shorthand of hysteric media headlines and facile stereotypes: “Teens Go on Wilding Rape Rampage,” “Satanic Blood Rituals Used to Murder Children” and so forth. It’s all too easy for those of us who live in fear of unknown, pervasive evil to believe adolescents — the ultimate unknown for people over 30 — are entirely capable of crimes and attitudes we never dreamed possible when we were their age.

The case against the Memphis Three initially comes off as a slam-dunk: The teens were into satanic rituals, as evidenced by the chillingly detailed journal of Echols, whose rebellious attitude did nothing to sway anyone’s first opinion of him; much of the initial circumstantial evidence against the boys appears to be damning, including testimonials from peers that they, too, took part in these evil rituals. Worst of all, Misskelley actually “confessed” to the crime. As is so often the case with trials such as this, the huge body of evidence seems to suggest an unassailable tidal wave of guilt. The thrill of the film, if it can be called that, is to watch this seemingly automatic case get ripped to shreds when the individual pieces of evidence against the trio gets an in-depth analysis. The supposed Satanic desecration of the young victims’ bodies turns out to be nothing more than the gnawings of a particularly hungry band of turtles; the “confession” turns out to be absolutely coerced by the police; the testimonials turn out to be utter fakes put together by the police, and so forth.

Most significantly, by the end, when it is all-too-clear the boys got screwed by the swampy southern justice system, our outrage comes at a bitterly ironic price: After all, before the film makes it strong case in the teens’ defense, it lays out the overwhelming stack of evidence against them, and most of us — if not all, to a person — would have probably come to the same utterly wrong-headed conclusions everyone else did at the time.

We are all equally conditioned by the preponderance of media hyperbole — a trend that has only dramatically increased with the advent of the ubiquitous and insatiable Internet, where we only read the first twenty words of every news story before moving on to the next one, assuming we can get the rest later — and are as prone to overreaction and misinformed opinion as all those terrified, incensed people in West Memphis twenty years ago. This case happened to take place then and there; the next one could very easily be in our own neck of the woods.