A long haul, two-and-a-half-hour documentary that absolutely needs that length. Amy Berg’s film details the ‘West Memphis Three’ case from 1994, when three eight-year-old boys were found dead in Arkansas, in what was suspected by the police to be a case of satanic ritual abuse. Three likely teenage suspects were rounded up and tried. The film then follows events through the 18 years they spent in a supermax prison as clamour slowly grew to overturn a miscarriage of justice and set them free. The clamour first took the shape of the documentary Paradise Lost, which galvanised the likes of Henry Rollins and Eddie Vedder into campaigning and fund-raising for the long battle, and, more pertinently, gained the attention of producer Fran Walsh and director Peter Jackson, who got on board to bankroll investigations to produce new evidence, and demolish the prosecution’s case. This is a Wingnut film, produced by Walsh, Jackson, and Damien Echols, one of the WM3.
Considering that, West of Memphis is fairly even-handed, giving voice to a fair few interviewees who still believe, or profess to believe, that the three teens committed the crime, but it’s clear where the film is coming from, and it’s difficult to argue with that perspective. The flimsiness of the original prosecution beggars belief: an alarmist conflation of dodgy ‘witnesses’, spurious medical evidence and the heavily coerced testimony of a borderline retarded teenager, it’s simultaneously blackly amusing and enraging to see it all torn apart. More enraging still is the state of Arkansas justice, where opportunities for retrial after retrial are denied for clearly political ends despite DNA evidence and new witnesses. One of the odder moments sees the campaigners praying for Judge Burnett’s bid to run for senator to succeed, purely so that he’ll no longer be in a position to stonewall.
It’s a fascinating story, full of twists and turns, dark ironies and striking characters, and Berg’s film largely shapes it as a long march to justice. Ambiguities remain, however. The outcome of the campaign is highly unsatisfactory, a baffling piece of legal chicanery that means that the likeliest suspect (Terry Hobbs, stepfather to one of the boys) is never going to see a courtroom. There is a glossed-over element of the tale, when the makers of Paradise Lost 2 seem to have tried to finger the wrong man for the crimes, based partly on the same logic of the WM3 conviction (i.e., that he was kinda funny lookin’, being a mulleted redneck, rather than a goth). And we’ll probably never know what actually happened to those boys in 1994. It’s an indication of how weird and twisted the whole thing gets that the only time Terry Hobbs is placed on a witness stand to answer questions about the murders is as a result of his attempt to sue one of the Dixie Chicks.
All of the key players are interviewed, and the unobtrusive soundtrack is by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. I wish I could say it makes the locale look starkly beautiful, but it really doesn’t, a polyester-clad trailer park hellhole of foetid water and barren scrub. But you only have to spend a hundred and fifty minutes there. I was never bored, it’s very much recommended, but viewers should be warned that it contains a lot of distressing forensic footage. And a scene where a snapping turtle attacks a dead pig’s testicles. I’m not going to forget that in a hurry.