After three HBO documentaries, more than a handful of news specials and books, and probably hundreds of published articles, it's perfectly legitimate to ask if we really need 'West of Memphis,' yet another look at the killings of three young boys and the three teenagers that were sent to prison for their murders. The advantage of the new documentary, directed by Amy Berg (who previously helmed the Oscar-nominated 'Deliver Us From Evil') and co-produced by Damien Echols (one of the three convicted for the crime), is a more focused look back at the evidence. The filmmakers now know what is solid evidence and what are just red herrings (which the HBO docs – at least the first two – didn't, as the new leads in the case were still quite fresh), resulting in 'West of Memphis' having a much more streamlined look at the murders, the trial, the appeals, and the eventual release of the accused.
It might be a little presumptuous to assume everyone reading this review is aware of the basics of this case, so I'll provide a very quick recap. In 1993, three young boys – all eight years of age – were reported missing in the town of West Memphis, Arkansas. Their bodies were found not long thereafter in a creek not far from their homes. They had been stripped naked, tied, and appeared to have been mutilated. Suspicion fell on three of the town's teenagers: Damien Echols, who had a well-known interest in the occult; Echols' friend Jason Baldwin, who was known to hang out with Damien; and Jesse Misskelly, an intellectually challenged teen who confessed to the crimes after a day's worth of interrogation by the police. The case went to trial, the prosecutors claimed the evidence pointed to Satanic ritual murders by the three teens, and the jury convicted them all. Misskelly (who was tried separately from the other two) was given 40 years in prison, Baldwin got life, and Echols was sentenced to the death penalty.
Knowing that most viewers will be aware of the trial and its results, 'West of Memphis' doesn't spend too much of its 147-minute running time covering it. The focus instead is on the lawyers' appeals for a new trial, and both the building up of new evidence in the case and the reinterpretation of evidence presented in the original trial. Along the way we learn that the so-called 'mutilations' of the kids' bodies were actually most likely animal bites; that the prosecutors clearly misrepresented evidence to the jury; and that new DNA evidence not only doesn't link to the convicted, it actually points directly to one of the murdered kids' stepfathers.
Since Misskelly's confession (and subsequent confessions thereafter) was a big reason for the conviction, 'West of Memphis' takes the time to examine the interrogation of Jesse by the police. It becomes pretty clear that the person doing the questioning was leading the discussion, guiding Mr. Misskelly toward the answers he wanted to hear. Granted, a person of normal intelligence/thought wouldn't cave to such an interrogation, but the movie reminds us of Jesse's low I.Q., and that his intelligence level is roughly that of a third grader. In short, Jesse was more interested in telling the police what they wanted to hear than what actually occurred.
When cases like this get national attention, it's usually because celebrities have gotten involved in the cause. That's no different here, as notables like Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, and Johnny Depp pop up to offer their comments. There are, however, a few celebrities who provided more than just their verbal/financial support. Peter Jackson, along with his partner Fran Walsh (who are also producers of this movie) are two of the main reasons the focus turned toward Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Stevie Branch (one of the three murdered children). Unbelievably, another celebrity – the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines – helped further implicate Hobbs in the murders. After linking Hobbs to a hair sample found on the victims, Maines made a comment about Hobbs at a rally, causing Hobbs to sue her for defamation. The lawsuit required Hobbs to be deposed under oath, leading to a whole range of past incidents of violence and abuse. To this day, he maintains his innocence, but viewers can see footage of Hobbs' questioning on this release and make their own decisions.
'West of Memphis' wraps up with Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelly's release from prison, although it came at a price. Instead of pursuing a new trial, which probably would have meant them staying in prison for several more years while the process worked its through the legal system, they made an agreement with the state to use an 'Alford plea' to obtain their release. It's an odd legal maneuver that has the defendants plea to a lesser charge in order to avoid harsher punishment. In other words, all three had to plead guilty to the murders to obtain their freedom. It also meant that the state of Arkansas essentially considers the case closed, although it's obvious – whether Terry Hobbs is guilty or not – that a lot of unanswered questions remain and that a murderer or murderers have escaped justice.
Believe it or not, there are still tons of people who think that the prosecutors got it right the first time – that Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelly are guilty and there's plenty of evidence to point to such (Don't believe me? Do a Google search!). 'West of Memphis' doesn’t pretend to be anything but an advocate for the accused, so it is fair to say it's a biased movie, however logical and factual much of it comes across as being. Does it contain the truth about Terry Hobbs, or has 'West of Memphis' just turned the witch hunt from one set of suspects toward another? (Keep in mind the second HBO movie, 'Paradise Lost 2: Revelations' essentially did the same kind of thing to Mark Byers, a stepfather of one of the other children.)
A movie like 'West of Memphis' should serve as a cautionary tale to avoid any rush of judgment in future cases. It's a reminder to us as citizens not to prejudge people, and a reminder to those in law enforcement to follow evidence to where it leads, not to where you want it to take you. At this point, it's doubtful we'll ever learn the real truth of who killed those three children, but perhaps the next time such a horrible event occurs the powers-that-be won't be so rushed to obtain justice that they destroy others' lives in the process.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'West of Memphis' arrives on Blu-ray in a standard Sony keepcase (Sony keepcases always have that little flap on the side you need to open first) that houses a single 50GB dual-layer disc, along with an insert advertising the CD for the movie (with songs both from the film and those inspired by it). The reverse side of the Blu-ray's slick (seen from the inside of the keepcase) features West Memphis 3 artwork made to look like graffiti.
The Blu-ray is front-loaded with trailers for The Company You Keep, At Any Price, Searching for Sugar Man, The Gatekeepers, Amour, and House of Cards. These trailers can also be viewed via a menu option in the extras section. The menu itself features a video montage of scenery from the movie, with menu selections across the bottom of the screen.
Presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, all the new material for this documentary was shot digitally with HD cameras while standard-def archival video footage is either blown up to fill the 1.78:1 frame or shown in its original 4:3 ratio. While the new footage has a few problems with both aliasing and banding every now and again, for the most part it looks great and provides a lot of detail and clarity – both in facial features and the backgrounds of most footage. Especially nice are the many shots of the town and areas around West Memphis that director Amy Berg has used as a background for many parts of the movie. Obviously, the archival footage is much rougher looking, through no fault of the filmmakers or this Blu-ray transfer.
One of the more pleasant surprises on this release is the quality of the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Since this is a documentary, I was fully expecting a front-heavy track, with little in terms of directionality or use of the rear speakers. However, the filmmakers have made nice use of both, keeping things active and providing a nice aural experience throughout. Dialogue is clean, and while the archival stuff isn't always as perfect, a nice job has been done making those portions as clear as possible.
Subtitles are available in English, English SDH, and French.
Justice is supposed to be blind, but in the case of the West Memphis murders, it was also deaf and stupid. 'West of Memphis' proves to be an excellent re-cap of all that's come before, with some additional new light shed on the case that just might finally point to the truth. Whether you're brand-new to this story or a long-time follower, this Blu-ray comes highly recommended.