TIFF 2012 Review: WEST OF MEMPHIS Sheds Different Light on Tragic Case

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
The documentary West of Memphis begins where it should, highlighting the initial victims that are at the heart of the entire tale: Three young boys who were hogtied, murdered and dumped into a creek in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas.

Three adolescents were arrested for the heinous crime based on a confession by one of the alleged perpetrators, and convicted in part based on testimony that the killings were part of a cult/Satanic ritual.

The real backstory for this documentary, however, lies not only with the tragic events that took place in the early 90s, but with three other documentaries. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Paradise Lost films form a kind of trilogy, three very different examinations of the case that aired on HBO. The first film outlined the preposterous behaviour of the investigative team, and highlighted how a group of misfit, outsider teens could engender such hate and derision from their local community.

This initial film spawned several projects of note. First, it galvanized a large number of individuals suddenly intent on seeing "justice" done for these people that seemed, based solely on the persuasive nature of this fine yet somewhat flawed initial film, to be not guilty of the actions that they were convicted of committing. Groups were organized, websites launched, and certain key celebrities (Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp) lent their voices to the cause.

The second Paradise Lost film came shortly after the first, focusing in part on the phenomenon caused by the initial documentary's run on HBO. This second doc is an absolutely fascinating example of when filmmakers lose any sense of distance from their subjects. It is a near textbook example of manipulation of their subject matter, tied to some downright ugly displays that try through almost brute force methods to lay the blame, or at least shift suspicion, onto the colourful character of John Mark Byers, adopted father of one of the murdered victims.

As one of the defence lawyers points out in one of the most salient moments in West of Memphis, the second Paradise Lost film help shift the glare away from three colourful teen characters, only to help foster the same mistake made by the jury outlined in the original case. Instead of a few sullen teens, the film tries to instead cast aspersions, with little regard for subtlety, onto another, new colourful character whose wild behaviour and idiosyncrasies are as disturbing to viewers and could easily lead one to suspect him in the murder of these three children.

The third film, made over a decade after the previous works, shows a remarkable transformation in the quality of filmmaking. Firstly, the film goes over once again the case, this time focusing on the performance of the participants with a slightly more delicate touch. Secondly, Paradise Lost 3 does a pretty remarkable job outlining the effect that all the events, the loss of the children, the effects of the trial and incarceration, the fight for vindication, and the search for answers that transpired since the initial events.

Nominated for an Oscar, this third film is clearly the most mature of the lot - less jingoistic than the first, less egregiously manipulative than the second.

When it screened last year at TIFF (I gave it a positive review here), it did so with a version that had been locked for editing changes just days before a remarkable thing transpired - through a series of rarely used legal maneuvers, the "West Memphis 3" were to plead guilty while maintaining their innocence, thus securing their freedom. Barely a week before the film screened in Toronto, the men were freed, with many, many questions left unanswered in the almost six hours of Berlinger/Sinofsky's trio of documentaries.

West of Memphis, then, may act reasonably well as a stand-alone piece, but at its core it is both an appendix to, and in some ways apology for, some of the elements in the three Paradise Lost films.

Of the three convicted, it was always the raven-haired alleged ringleader, the pale-faced Damien Echols, that captured the imagination of the audience. Many could see in him the same outsider characteristics that they felt, the sullen and withdrawn adolescent caught up as a usual suspect because of the music he listened to or the writings he'd jot in a diary festooned with markings of inverted pentagrams. It was with him that the film and rock stars would strike up friendship, his face the main icon used for freeing these boys from prison.

Naturally, the fact that Echols was on death row with the others imprisoned for life made his story all the more dire, but it remains the case that he was the charismatic, sullen and sarcastic central player that much of the attention focused upon. Just as if there wasn't the salacious discussion of Satanism and cult behaviour to drive attention to the trial in the first place, if it was just the mentally challenged Miskelly and the spectacled, heavy-metal fan Baldwin on trial, it's unlikely that as much international attention would have been generated.

Echols was the alleged leader of the gang that committed the murder, a fact that has been summarily disputed, but through each documentary it's clear that he was the most articulate, openly introspective member of the three.

It should be noted, then, that Echols serves as a producer of this newest film. While the participation of the other two is there, if briefly, the central tenet of the film, when talking about the life of the convicted three, surrounds primarily the events surrounding Echols.

The other producer of the film is Peter Jackson, his Wingnut Productions lending financial weight to the documentary project. Peter and his wife Fran themselves became central parts of the story, conversing regularly with Echols' wife Lorri, a tireless defender of the WM3 and one of the primary subjects of the second PL film. Fran is notoriously camera shy, regularly letting her husband do the talking for both of them. The ever affable PJ does his lively best, talking about how the screening of the HBO show led him to help support efforts to do a proper investigation of the circumstances surrounding other suspects overlooked by the original police work.

It's with these elements that West of Memphis takes on a unique tone. While director Berg does her able best to craft a unique work while respecting the previous documentaries, it's hard in the end not to see this more of a story of Damien's supporters, including the Jacksons, and how their money and tenacity resulted in the deal that led to the three of them leaving prison.

West of Memphis certainly grasps at objectivity in a way that the best moments of the Paradise Lost films do, but it occasionally lapses into its own giddy retelling of the help and support that famous people gave to this case. In its two plus hours of running time, it covers much of the same ground as the previous films, but does so through a slightly different lens. The love story of Damien and Lori is given more time to develop, with the reading of letters between the two as they discuss love, the sense of time, the given themes of a particular romantic book, and so on.

The film also spends a lot of time with a number of characters in this tale that no doubt were hesitant to work again with Sinofky/Berlinger. The relationship between the mother one of the victims, Pamela Hobbs, and her estranged husband Terry is delved into in even more detail than the third PL film did. While the other film suggested, if strongly, that Terry Hobbs' actions were worthy of investigation, in West of Memphis this investigation is made manifest. Funded by PJ and Fran, we encounter private investigators, hear reams of testimonial evidence, and for the first time hear from the sister Amanda, her voice absent from the other works, as she finds herself fighting her own demons at a relatively young age.

We find highlighted specific details that the other projects may have glossed over, hearing in detail about the events that led to the eventual release of the WM3. Compelling interviews with the defence attorneys are matched with quite impressive access to the original trial judge, the original prosecutor and the current district attorney who helped fashion the release agreement.

Judged on its own merits, West of Memphis is a provocative, moving look at both the investigation, the aftermath, and the events surrounding the secured release of the three. From a direction standpoint it has certain visual flourishes that harken back explicitly to the earlier films, but it does try to craft its own visual style.

From the standpoint of detailing the actual events that transpired that resulted in the murder of these three children, the film isn't hesitant at all to point the finger squarely at Terry Hobbs. In scene after scene, the audience is again led to believe, with a slew of both physical and circumstantial evidence, that Hobbs (and not the WM3) was the real perpetrator.

Naturally, without a proper court and appropriate and thorough investigation, we'll never know what really happened. It's clear that there are gaping holes in the evidence that convicted the three young men, and it's clear that there's compelling evidence pointing toward the Hobbs' "family secret".

Yet it's when the film so stridently points its own finger, accusing almost directly a man who is not given his own opportunity to either rebut the charge or speak for himself (save for surreptitiously taped phone conversations) that we see once again a documentary on this subject overstepping certain bounds without regard for potentially unintended consequences.

For example, West of Memphis (like two of the films before it) completely ignores an element raised by the first film, the "Mr. Bojangles" who also, apparently, had trace evidence connection with the original crime scene. There are a myriad of these moments in the hours and hours of documentary that bring up questions of motive and opportunity, conflicting stories changed and shaped over time, recanted witnesses, and so on.

As with most things, the more closely you look at something, the more times you go back to the same well to draw from in order to discuss a given tale, the more the recounting shapes and fluctuates over time. In what must be a circumstance unique in the history of cinema, a small, local story like this has been "crowd sourced" (to use a term from the film) in order to uncover some elusive truth. Issues of epistemological certitude are as complicated here as the Kennedy Assassination, with a veritable constellation of hints and allegations that have driven the story for a particular community for almost two decades.

It's unclear what, if anything, West of Memphis substantively adds to this conversation that wasn't already discussed in the previous films. It does very much fill in a few interesting holes, providing certain context for things glossed over in the other works. It's of course easy to see these elements tied even more explicitly to the other documentary, and there's little content here that wouldn't have fit it very well as an addendum to the work of the third PL film.

West of Memphis is a documentary that rose out of a documentary that in turn rose out of a story that captured the imagination of a country. It's a strange, meta-upon-meta investigation of the fascination in the unique murder of three young, cute, Caucasian children. The reasons that this story has fostered such fascination are briefly articulated in the flawed second PL film, but are nearly absent here. This newest film takes it for granted that this is a story of great interest and complexity, the story of justice miscarried, and one more than worth of international attention. It goes out of its way not to lose focused on the murdered, but does so while celebrating those who (on paper) have admitted guilt to the events, while pointing explicitly to another that seems far more likely to have committed the act.

We're left, paired with the other three films, with some 8+ hours of examination of the events surrounding the case, yet we're left, finally, with many more questions than answers.

What is clearly presented is the harrowing effect this has had on those closest to the case. We skip, however, many more elements that would have elevated the film even further - about the reintroduction into society of the three individuals, and of the effect their release had on the other family members of victims (young Michael Moore's family remains absent on screen).

By covering much of the same material as the other films, this work lends itself inevitably for direct comparison, and frankly it derives much of its impact from elements covered in detail in the other three works. While it has the advantage of including those events that transpired after the locking of the previous work, it does not in the hole really provide much that wasn't articulated by Berenger/Sinofsky.

What we do get is some lovey-dovey shots of a newly reunited Echols couple in NYC, and goodly chunks of the likes of Vedder and Jackson waxing poetic about their roles in helping resolve the situation of these three men. In depth chats with Jesse and Jason might have helped make the film slightly more well-rounded, but their brief encounter at the film's conclusion is certainly welcome.

Moving forward, we're to see a fiction film (helmed by Atom Egoyan, no less), produced in part by Jason Baldwin. Based on the book Devil's Knot written by Mara Leveritt, an interviewee in West of Memphis who was also drawn to the case because of Paradise Lost, you can expect 2013 to be the third year in a row that a WM3-themed film will show at TIFF.

By the time we get Reese Witherspoon in to "play" Pam Hobbs, we know we'll be even farther from any semblance of what took place in that stretch of wood between the houses and the highway. This very call to Hollywood, as well as the result of publishing deals, has, as recently reported by the New York Times, caused a major rift between Echols and Baldwin. The exposure of disagreements is certainly not surprising, given the pent-up passions an expectations that two decades in prison must have wrought.

We get none of this drama in detail West of Memphis. Sure, there's some tension when Baldwin yet again refuses to admit to something he didn't do, in turn jeopardizing the release of his compatriots, but in the end they all come off as smiling guys glad to be out of prison. The are very real, very interesting questions remaining not just about this case but about the effect that incarceration has had on these individuals.

These hard questions will remain fascinating for years to come, and only with a bit more time and perspective can there be anything approaching a satisfactory investigation of just what the result will be for the WM3 with their newly found freedom. They remain listed as convicted child murderers, yet have achieved international celebrity which at least the two more eloquent members are exploiting to full effect. West of Memphis demonstrates the WM3 (or at least Damien Echols) taking back the telling of their own story, so it feels at times mildly aggrandizing.

We may now have hours and hours exploring this case, but I'll make a less than bold prediction - expect with sufficient time and distance another documentary exploring the ongoing investigation of the case, as well as the integration of these men into society, another addition to what remains, for a myriad of reasons not entirely centered around the grisly case, a compelling, remarkable narrative.

Yet it's to the credit of Berg that the film doesn't entirely delve into hagiography of the convicted, yet we don't get with this work a specific understanding of either the stories of the other two young boys not named Hobbs that were also killed, nor are we given any real insight into the other members of the WM3. As such, this film almost by default expects the viewers to have watched the other three documentaries in full in order to parse these elements. While this expectation isn't unfounded, particularly for devotées of this case, it nonetheless is a slight mark against the film as a standalone work.

At its most base level, this is a film that provides mild contextualization to a story already well told, which may or may not be sufficient for your enjoyment of the film as a standalone work. At worst, it may be accused of letting the other films do the heavy lifting, creating a simplified version of events with two dimensional co-conspirators and even less articulated presentations of near faceless young victims.

I think such charges against the work would be too harsh, as there are at least significant signs that some balance is attempted in the work, while at other times charges made by some of the participants, particularly about the motivations for those responsible for getting a conviction of the WM3 are allowed to go unchecked.

It would be unfortunate for viewers to confuse this version of tale (or, for that matter, the aforementioned fictionalization) as providing an easy answer to what, if anything, has been beautifully and effectively shown with the epic nature of the Paradise Lost trilogy to be a series of events that generate no easy or definitive answers.

Keen viewers of West of Memphis should be left on as unshaky epistemological ground as they were after the other three films - only those susceptible to the charms of the editing style and selected items presented as circumstantial fact would be drawn into making definitive conclusions about what the "truth" of who actually perpetrated the acts against those boys down in West Memphis, Arkansas.

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