West of Memphis (R13)

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The ViewDunedin Review

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Review byMatthew Turner23/12/2012

Four out of Five stars
Running time: 150 mins

By turns terrifying, depressing, rage-inducing and genuinely moving, this is a superbly made documentary that unfolds like a thoroughly gripping, painstaking police procedural and packs a powerful emotional punch.

What's it all about?
Directed by Amy Berg, West of Memphis examines the 20 year long miscarriage of justice surrounding the West Memphis Three, who were imprisoned as teenagers after three 8 year old boys were found murdered in the woods in West Memphis, Arkansas. Amidst widespread hysteria, alleged ringleader Damien Echols was sentenced to death, while Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley both received life sentences, but critics of the case pointed to serious anomalies in the evidence that seemed to prove their innocence, sparking a 20 year campaign that finally resulted in their eventual release in 2011, albeit with a state-imposed caveat.

The Good
Unfolding chronologically, like a riveting police procedural, director Amy Berg's film treads similar ground to the Paradise Lost trilogy by filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, but it has a more definitive ending and, intriguingly, reaches a very different decision about who the actual murderer (who is still at large) might be. The film is expertly assembled, using a wealth of archive footage that includes police investigation video, footage from each trial and press reports, alongside contemporary interviews with many of the people involved as well as high profile financial backers of both the investigation and the film, such as Eddie Vedder and Peter Jackson (who also serves as producer).

The film is extremely harrowing because there's a distinct feeling that what happened to the West Memphis Three could happen to anyone with even vaguely counter-cultural leanings (they were initially accused of killing the boys in a Satanic ritual). Similarly, the latter half of the film is incredibly shocking and induces serious levels of rage when it emerges that the Arkansas justice department would rather keep the three men imprisoned than admit their catalogue of mistakes and potentially open themselves up to a financially crippling court case for damages; the eventual court decision to release them comes with an equally self-serving sting in the tail that is difficult to swallow.

The Bad
The only real problem with the film is that some of Berg's methods leave a rather unpleasant taste in the mouth and leave the filmmakers open to the accusation of exploiting the vulnerable, most notably a clearly disturbed young woman who somehow allows the film crew to sit in on her psychiatry sessions (even if the production paid for the sessions, this is still both unprofessional and deeply uncomfortable to watch) and a sequence where they attempt to set up their chief suspect by recording phone calls made by his (also clearly distressed) best friend.

Worth seeing?
West of Memphis is a superbly made, utterly riveting and powerfully emotional documentary that demands to be seen. Highly recommended.

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Content updated: 18/01/2019 04:27

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