MRR Movie Review: West of Memphis

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West of Memphis is an examination of a failure of justice in Arkansas. The documentary tells the hitherto unknown story behind an extraordinary and desperate fight to bring the truth to light. Told and made by those who lived it, the filmmakers' unprecedented access to the inner workings of the defense, allows the film to show the investigation, research and appeals process in a way that has never been seen before; revealing shocking and disturbing new information about a case that still haunts the American South.
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Movie Review: "West of Memphis"

-- Rating: R (For disturbing violent content and some language)
Length: 147 minutes
Release Date: January 21, 2012
Directed by: Amy Berg
Genre: Documentary

If "West of Memphis" could be summarized in a few words, it could be described as an examination of a crusade to find justice for three teenagers accused and convicted of murdering three children eighteen years ago. However, this documentary, which is directed by Amy Berg, is much more than that. It is produced by Peter Jackson and Damien Echols, who was one of the men convicted of the murders.

The documentary sheds more light on the injustice meted out on the trio, but it focuses on Echols, who appears as himself in the film. Echols appears to be the most articulate member of the trio, and he is also the only one sentenced to death. His codefendants, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin, both appearing as themselves in the documentary, were given life sentences for the 1993 murders in West Memphis, Arkansas.

This is not the first documentary about the case. Numerous films, articles, and even books have been written about it. A good example is "Paradise Lost," a trilogy of movies that details the events that occurred. Thus, it was a bit surprising that "West of Memphis" gained such a huge audience when it was released. In fact, many people were pleasantly surprised that the inmates were released during the production of the documentary.

"West of Memphis" clearly shows that justice is still selective in this country, despite some huge successes in the American judicial system. It is clear that without the unwavering support and hard work of a few select people, the inmates would still be in prison. Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson, who were both involved in creating the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, supported the trio.. The duo even joined with other celebrities, including Johnny Depp and Henry Rollins, to provide financial support for the three prisoners' defense.

Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin were a group of poor, lost teenagers when they were accused of murdering Christopher Byers, Michael Moore, and Steven Branch. The victims' bodies were found abandoned in a creek. The quest for justice was hurried, and the boys were quickly convicted of the murders. The prosecution portrayed the accused as adherents of a satanic sect and maintained they had murdered the children as part of their rituals. This argument was based partly on the fact that the teenagers listened to heavy-metal rock music and dressed in black clothes.

The documentary begins with an overview of materials related to the case that were described in the "Paradise Lost" trilogy. There was an insinuation in the second film of the series that John Byers, the adoptive father of one of the victims, could be one of the killers. Mr. Byers is shown in "West of Memphis" proclaiming the innocence of the trio outside the courtroom in 2011. This is interesting because he is the same person who was shown ranting about the teenagers' guilt and their satanic connections in the earlier films.

"West of Memphis" also includes an audio recording of Mr. Misskelley's interrogation, which clearly shows that the man is mildly retarded. Given his mental condition, it is not surprising that the prosecution easily succeeded in feeding him the answers they wanted him to give. The documentary also revealed that some of the wounds on the victims' bodies were inflicted by animals after their deaths. This information greatly undermines the conviction of the West Memphis trio.

Berg is a talented director, and the filmmaking techniques she employs in "West of Memphis" are stunning. It must have been very difficult to make the documentary, if only because of the large number of players. The filmmaker solved this problem by switching between different time periods. She also uses news footage, interviews, and timelines to tell the story in a systematic and informative way. Berg achieves an emotional push in the documentary by sticking to unsettling materials such as crime scene videos, the content of personal communications, and trial footage. Overall, this is a well-crafted documentary.

Although most people recognize him for his work on "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" film trilogies, he has worked on a number of other films including "Bad Taste," "Braindead," and "Heavenly Creatures." Berg is an American filmmaker well known for "Deliver Us from Evil," a documentary about an abusive Irish priest and the sex abuse cases that rocked the Roman Catholic Church.

Rating 3 out of 5