West Of Memphis

West Of Memphis


Reviewed by: Sophie Monks Kaufman

West Of Memphis is a piece of investigative journalism so scrupulous it feels like an expertly presented legal case, a legal case exposing the deep-rooted ambivalence of those in power to justice and – more hearteningly – the determination of a large group of people, including its co-producer, The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit director, Peter Jackson, to see wrongful imprisonments reversed.

To start at the beginning, as the documentary does, means going back to Arkansas. On 5 May 1993, 8-year-olds Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore were found in a river - naked, hog-tied, genitally mutilated and dead. Although WOM goes on to be about the complex and negligent procedures surrounding this case, Berg never forgets to respect its sheer tragedy. An early scene shows Stevie’s mother clutching his boy-scout shirt. “I grab it and hug it and I’m just grateful that I get an embrace back,” she sobs.

Copy picture

As a kneejerk reaction to the tragedy, the police arrest teenagers Damien Echols, Jesse Miskelley and Jason Baldwin. Their main crime is fitting the bill of satanists. A local man who’s read several books on the subject reckons satanists committed this crime. It would be laughable if only it wasn’t taken as gospel by the prosecutor, judge and jury, leading to severe sentences for the teenagers.

Despite being co-produced by Damien and his wife, the film is methodical and controlled in stating the case for their innocence. Although the absurd, over-emotional logic of the court case – footage of which is grippingly spliced into proceedings – is self-evident, the accused remain mysterious, Damien is all swagger, Jesse is reserved and Jason, a little simple.

Their portraits are built up from interviews with those who know them best, one of whom, reader, married Damien. Once the narrative moves to the time behind bars, we get to know the slightly depressed, articulate and handsome ‘ring- leader’ pretty well. Extraordinarily, he doesn’t seem angry. Like everyone else involved in a case - which is garnering nationwide attention and support - his focus is purely on freedom.

As befits a story that wants to keep all the important details in, WOM is a long ‘un but the 150 minutes are rammed. The way to get a conviction overturned in Arkansas is to present another suspect and we have a front-row seat as the film does just that. No fictionalised crime drama ever felt as thrilling. One scene – in which a man lets an alligator snapping turtle bite him in the name of evidence – encapsulates the extraordinary resilience of people who just won’t quit.

What puts West of Memphis into the category of ‘unmissable’ for anyone interested in judicial process, crime or even just good documentaries is its access to archive material. Distressing photos of the boys’ bodies, detailed interviews with everyone from the boys’ parents to slippery politicians to flippin’ Henry Rollins, as well as transcripts of leading police interviews give you the facts and let you draw your own conclusions. And those conclusions will wake up a part of your brain that definitely needs to be awake. As with the academy award winning Deliver Us From Evil, Amy J Berg has proven that bringing journalistic credentials to the documentary arena is a vital use of talent.

Reviewed on: 16 Oct 2012
Share this with others on...
West Of Memphis packshot
A documentary team sets out to challenge the conviction of three teenagers, labelled Satanists, for the murder of three boys.
Amazon link

Director: Amy Berg

Writer: Amy Berg

Starring: Damien Wayne Echols, Jason Baldwin, Jessie Miskelly, Lorris Davis, Pam Hobbs

Year: 2012

Runtime: 147 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Search database: