Editor’s note: Nearly a year after premiering at Sundance, Amy Berg’s West of Memphis hit limited release this week. The following is a re-run of our Sundance review, originally published on January 29, 2012. At Sundance, the film notably included interviews that had been completed mere days before its festival bow. As such, the final product now appearing in theaters is slightly modified from the Sundance version, with more interviews and tighter editing. Not to worry, however, as our faithful Associate Editor Kate Erbland watched the film again, in its final form, and this review remains as applicable as it did in January.
When Amy Berg‘s West of Memphis held its first Sundance screening on only the second day of the festival, audience members walked out stunned – not just because of the film’s emotional material, its often graphic crime scenes and autopsy photos and videos, or even because of how it squarely points to a singular perpetrator (one who is, of course, not part of the West Memphis 3), but because the film was undeniably fresh. So fresh, in fact, that two interviews that pop up in the film’s final third both came complete with a time stamp that indicated that they had been conducted the week before the film bowed at the fest – eight days before its opening. While the West Memphis 3 (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley) were freed in August of last year, their nearly twenty-year ordeal remains almost frighteningly of the moment.
Berg uses a number of documentary filmmaking techniques to present the story – all are exceedingly well-executed and, despite the film’s vast number of players and Berg’s decision to flit back and forth between time periods, it’s both easy to follow and to engage with. Berg uses timelines, news footage, and interviews to lay out the crime and the case in an informative manner, but she sticks to unsettling and moving pieces like graphic photos and videos from the crime scene and the three autopsies, trial footage, and the reading of personal letters and emails to make sure the film has the necessary emotional push. West of Memphis is both affecting and infuriating, the kind of story and film that all but guarantees that audience members will gasp, scoff, laugh, jeer, and cry throughout its two-and-a-half-hour runtime (which flies by).
The film also features copious interviews, with particular attention paid to Echols, his wife Lorri Davis, and Pam Hobbs, the mother of one of the victims. Other players in the case who weigh in include Peter Jackson (who produced the film along with wife Fran Walsh), Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, lawyer Dennis Riordan, Dr. Vincent Di Maio, along with other lawyers, prosecutors, judges, politicians, activists, and family members. While Berg’s subjects provide sizable information, such a heavy emphasis on the main three (with special attention paid to the personal relationship between Davis and Walsh) does make it obvious that similar depth with regards to Baldwin and Misskelley is lacking. While we meet both men along the way, along with some of their friends and family members, the film is decidedly focused on Echols.
The story of the West Memphis 3 has been chronicled before, most notably by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky with their trilogy of Paradise Lost films (which are often pointed to as crucial element in rallying support for the men), but West of Memphis proves that the ordeal is more than worthy of multiple investigations and films. Berg’s film is but a piece of the entire story, but it’s an essential entry into the horrifying true life tale.
The Upside: West of Memphis serves as an illuminating look inside the entire West Memphis 3 ordeal, from crime to trial to freedom, and all of the infuriating twists and turns in between. It’s an emotional journey, one that will alternately rile and move its audience. Berg’s access to people and evidence positively crams the film with new interviews and material that will stun even those previously educated about the case.
The Downside: Despite the Berg and producers Jackson and Walsh’s ability to get amazing new footage and evidence, the film lacks equal attention to some of its subjects – Echols, Davis, and Pam Hobbs are the central figures in the film, but more footage and interviews with Misskelley, Baldwin, and the other parents would have rounded things out. Of course, the subject is a delicate one and it’s possible that such access was not even an option, but the inclusion of so many personal pieces (particularly emails between Davis and Walsh) occasionally feel like filler to make up for those gaps.
On the Side: Reese Witherspoon is set to play Pam Hobbs in the film adaptation of the book “Devil’s Knot” by Mara Leveritt (who appears in the film).