×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

West of Memphis

Following on the heels of the celebrated "Paradise Lost" trilogy, Amy Berg's clear, captivating, indignant film about the West Memphis Three carves out its own significant place in criminal-justice cinema.

With:
With: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley Jr., Lorri Davis, Eddie Vedder, David Burnett, Blake Sisk, Cody Gott.

Whether the state of Arkansas can ignore “West of Memphis” seems to be the only remaining question surrounding this first-rate investigative docu on the notorious West Memphis Three case, its questionable prosecution and its dubious resolution. Following on the heels of the celebrated “Paradise Lost” trilogy, Amy Berg’s clear, captivating, indignant film carves out its own significant place in criminal-justice cinema, makes new and startling revelations into the triple-murder mystery, and is visually spectacular to boot. As an annotated supplement to the existing films or on its own, pic could find a theatrical aud and will undoubtedly play well on cable.

Produced by Peter Jackson and longtime partner Fran Walsh (as well as the recently freed Damien Echols and wife Lorri Davis), “West of Memphis” initially prompted the question: Why? The existing films of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, whose HBO-produced docus covered the case more or less in real time, had seemed to exhaust the subject. Not so.

Berg, enlisted by longtime West Memphis Three supporters Jackson and Walsh, has obtained interviews with principal players who eluded Berlinger and Sinofsky, digs deeper into specific aspects of the case, and unveils shocking information about Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of murder victim Steve Branch. Where “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” pointed a finger at Hobbs, “West of Memphis” shakes a fist. As “Purgatory” made clear, Hobbs’ whereabouts at the time of the murder would seem to make him a prime suspect; a witness places him with the boys just before the murder; DNA is not his friend. His record of domestic violence, which Berg examines in much greater detail than “Purgatory” did, is damning.

In addition to the several recanting trial witnesses Berg assembles and the conclusions of a forensic team that independently reviewed the murder scene and trial exhibits (and that Jackson and Walsh paid for), the film also includes the late-breaking assertions by Blake Sisk and Cody Gott — friends of Michael Hobbs Jr., Terry’s nephew — that they overheard Terry discussing a highly incriminating “Hobbs family secret.” (The on-camera accounts by Sisk and Gott were added to “West of Memphis” only this month.) Taken together with last summer’s supposed conclusion of the case — in which the imprisoned Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. traded guilty pleas for their freedom — it amounts to a tragicomedy of prosecutorial errors and obstinance.

If the West Memphis Three chapter teaches anyone anything, it’s to not jump to conclusions. At the same time, the conclusions the film leaves us with would seem to call for a misconduct case against certain state officials and, at least, a grand jury investigation of Hobbs. The rub is that, having taking so-called Alford pleas, Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin cannot sue Arkansas, and the state — which considers the case officially solved — has no interest in pursuing any other possible suspects. Legally speaking, the three principals seem to have hit a dead end, although the Sisk-Gott revelation is precisely what could lead to a fresh examination of the evidence.

The many leading Arkansans who oppose such an outcome include two high-ranking jurists who never spoke to Berlinger and Sinofsky. They do, however, speak to Berg: David Burnett, the original trial judge who repeatedly thwarted the West Memphis Three supporters’ efforts to secure new hearings (“There is no new evidence,” says Burnett, now a state senator), and prosecutor Scott Ellington, who still insists the men are guilty, but agrees to be interviewed here because, “I need to be heard by my voters.”

One aspect of the case that Berg could have emphasized regards the political hay to be made by perpetrating injustice: Echols states quite frankly that he, Baldwin and Misskelley were railroaded and kept in prison because it was to the career advantage of state officials to do so. “West of Memphis” makes it extremely difficult to believe otherwise.

Tech credits are tops, notably the work of lensers Maryse Alberti and Ronan Killeen.

West of Memphis

Production: A Wingnut Films production in association with Disarming Films. Produced by Amy Berg, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Damien Echols, Lorri Davis. Executive producer, Ken Kamins. Co-producer, Matthew Dravitzki. Directed by Amy Berg. Written by Berg, Billy McMillin.

Crew: Camera (color), Maryse Alberti, Ronan Killeen; editor, McMillin; music, Nick Cave, Warren Ellis; music supervisor, Jonathan McHugh; sound (Dolby Digital), Abe Dolinger, Alan Barker, Jeff Deeth, James Machowski, Chris McIntire; line producers, Dan Kaplow, Tina Elmo; associate producers, Katelyn Howes, Alejandra Riguero. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres), Jan. 20, 2012. Running time: 150 MIN.

With: With: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley Jr., Lorri Davis, Eddie Vedder, David Burnett, Blake Sisk, Cody Gott.

More Film

  • 'All These Small Moments' Review

    Film Review: 'All These Small Moments'

    The magic of writer-director Melissa B. Miller Costanzo’s “All These Small Moments” can be found within the intimacy of the scenarios, the authenticity of her earnest characterizations, and the accessibility of the actors’ honest performances. In her deftly polished directorial debut, Costanzo dovetails the primary story about a teen’s coming of age with a secondary [...]

  • Bruce Tufeld Dead: Hollywood Agent and

    Hollywood Agent and Manager Bruce Tufeld Dies at 66

    Bruce Tufeld, a Hollywood agent and manager who once repped stars like Rob Lowe, Laura Dern, and Kelsey Grammer, died Tuesday in Los Angeles as a result of complications from liver cancer. He was 66. The son of respected television announcer Richard “Dick” Tufeld and Adrienne Tufeld, Bruce began his career as an assistant at ICM [...]

  • Bruce Dern

    Film News Roundup: Bruce Dern's 'The Lears' Bought by Vertical for February Release

    In today’s film news roundup, Bruce Dern’s “The Lears” and “Angels Are Made of Light” are acquired, Cold War drama “Stanley Cage” is launched and a documentary about Madonna’s early music career gets a release. ACQUISITIONS Vertical Entertainment has acquired North American rights from NeoClassics Films to “The Lears,” starring Bruce Dern in a modern-day [...]

  • Octavia Spencer Bryce Dallas Howard

    Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard to Reunite for Comedy 'Fairy Tale Ending'

    Octavia Spencer and Bryce Dallas Howard will reunite for the ensemble comedy “Fairy Tale Ending.” Jim Hecht (“Ice Age: The Meltdown) and Tracy McMillan (“Marvel’s Runaways”) are writing the screenplay. Howard will also produce the Universal movie through her Nine Muses Entertainment alongside Eric Carlson and Susan Carlson. Seth MacFarlane and Erica Huggins will produce [...]

  • Robert Smith, Longtime Executive at DuArt

    Robert Smith, Longtime Executive at New York's DuArt Film Labs, Dies at 88

    Robert Smith, a longtime executive with New York’s DuArt Film Labs, died Jan. 11 in Montvale, N.J. He was 88. Smith spent some 62 years with DuArt, the film processing and post-production facility founded in 1922 in the penthouse of an automobile garage in Midtown. Smith rose to president of DuArt before retiring in 2015. [...]

  • Bird Box

    Los Angeles On-Location Feature Filming Surges 12.2% in 2018

    On-location feature filming in Greater Los Angeles expanded impressively in 2018, gaining 12.2% to 4,377 shooting days, according to FilmL.A. Production activity for feature films rose 15.5% to 1,078 shooting days during the fourth quarter, with 146 days coming from projects receiving California tax credits — including Netflix’s “Bird Box,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content