The compelling documentary West of Memphis originated in 2009, when Hobbit filmmaker Peter Jackson approached lauded documentarian Amy J. Berg about making a film in support of the West Memphis Three. Arkansas teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley were sentenced to life imprisonment (and death, in Echols' case) in 1994 for the murders of three young boys in a highly publicized trial that included wild allegations about Satanism and heavy metal music.
The West Memphis Three became a cause celebre thanks to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's documentaries Paradise Lost: The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills and its sequel Revelations. Jackson and his wife, Fran Walsh, initially became involved in 2005 to help fund an investigation for the West Memphis Three's defense. Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were released in August of 2011, ahead of both Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory and Berg's own documentary on the case.
Events having overtaken West of Memphis, the film lacks the dramatic urgency it may have possessed were the trio still imprisoned. Taken on its own terms, West of Memphis presents a highly powerful argument, with enough moral indignation and narrative drive to propel the story for nearly two and a half hours.
The film's early scenes crosscut between the young murder victims' last day in 1993 and the arrest of Echols and company. Even in present-day interviews, the parents' grief remains raw, and the audience's hearts will ache when one mother reveals her son's Cub Scout uniform. The film raises questions about the police work and prosecutorial choices, with recordings that suggest that law enforcement fed Misskelley's confession to him. At one point, officers announce to the press that they're going to make a significant discovery while searching a lake, suggesting that they have foreknowledge of what they'll find.
As nearly two decades pass, West of Memphis shapes its centerpiece around Terry Hobbs, stepfather of victim Stevie Branch, as a possible suspect in the killings. The film reveals witnesses, forensic evidence, and details from Hobbs' personal history before and after the murders that raise questions about his involvement.
At the same time, West of Memphis trains its viewers to avoid the kind of rush to judgment that implicated Echols and the others in the first place. In one of the case's strange turns, John Mark Byers, the stepfather of another victim, emerged as an intense, outspoken critic of the West Memphis Three, and drew suspicion in the late 1990s (as shown in Paradise Lost 2), but over the following decade did a 180 and became a critic of the state and champion of the imprisoned trio. Documentaries, even excellent ones, can't always be expected to encapsulate the entirety of a complex criminal case.
Echols serves as a producer of the film and comes across as an articulate, surprisingly affable self-advocate. In one of the story's most surprisingly warm twists, the imprisoned Echols falls in love with and marries Lorri Davis, a New York architect who became a tireless activist on his behalf. He even hobnobs with celebrities from behind bars, as singer Eddie Vedder describes eating candy with Echols during a prison visit.
The film follows the legal maneuvers that would likely have won the West Memphis Three a new trial had the state not offered them an "Alford Plea" deal, in which the defendants plead guilty, assert innocence and go free. Like the State of Arkansas' final insult, the circumstances of the threesome's release, not to mention the lingering mystery about the actual killer, tempers any sense of victory the viewer might feel.
The West Memphis Three's big-screen story will continue: Last year, Canadian director Atom Egoyan filmed a docudrama called Devil's Knot in Atlanta, featuring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth. Until that film's release later in 2013, if you can only watch one film about the case, West of Memphis proves the most powerful, feeling both concise and comprehensive.