Saturday, January 26, 2013

West of Memphis

Many documentaries have the power to instill rage in us-- that raw power of a story outside ourselves that strikes a certain anger and fervency.  Very few documentaries have a power to actually evoke change.  While certainly Morgan Spurlock's fast food uprising Super Size Me prompted McDonalds to disavow their Super Size meals, the eternal power of cinema may be the primary influence in the call for change for the West Memphis Three.  In 1993, three teenagers from West Memphis, Arkansas-- Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley-- were charged with the heinous murder of three eight-year-old boys.  Despite a severe lack of evidence, cries of misconduct during the investigation and further more during the trail, the only tangible piece that put these three young men behind bars was a controversial, and believed to heavily coerced confession by Misskelley, a high school drop out deemed by his own father, "retarded." The crime, dubbed the Robin Hood Hills Murder, has generated a heavy dose of controversy since it occurred, and through the investigation and trial process there was a certain call to arms to the stumped detectives that justice must be served.  What was found was three young men, all of whom condemned as others in their world, who might fit the bill.  West of Memphis, Amy Berg's avid and insightful documentary chronicles the past and the present, bringing about an astute primer study for those unaware of the case, and a deeper, more thoughtful perspective for those already deeply immersed in the unfolding human drama that enveloped in the Paradise Lost trilogy.

The Paradise Lost film themselves can be held assuredly responsible for bringing about the strange events and questioning the guilt of the young men being held accountable for it.  Since of course, there's been a further outpouring.  Of facts, DNA evidence, testimony, recanting of information and enough back and forth bedlam to drive anyone mad.  What stems clearly and most authoritatively is that nothing equals up and the horrific crime at the center is still essentially unsolved, despite nearly twenty years of time spent in prison (Echols on death row.)  One can make the argument, perhaps a well sounded one, that West of Memphis may be treadling on the repetitive, especially since the third installment of Paradise Lost is itself only a year old (and a 2011 Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature), but Berg, under the scrupulous supervision of producer Peter Jackson mount their offering with a clear-eyed and even-keeled analysis, fringed with an astute and straight-forward artfulness that navigates this tricky study with an assured confidence and a detailed prism of the complex narrative that's seeming continually unfolding.

The boys themselves were picked as easy targets, as Echols states they, "were poor white trash."  Echols himself, a depressed goth kid living squarely in the Bible Belt, who speaks with an eloquence and sober refrain perhaps only instilled after half a lifetime of confinement, acknowledges his otherness.  As a young punker who didn't fit in, and one with a few sinister jabs at authority, and a light criminal record to boot, it must have seen like candy to the investigators, stumbled and perhaps aware of their own frailties, when the crime became entangled with superstition and allusions of occult involvement.  Never mind the fact that the three teenagers could never be placed at the time of the crime, and numerous measures were either forgotten, misguided or fumbled-- a crime like this needs a suspect, and that may have been all that was key to the West Memphis Police Department.  A similar story unfolded at the center of another 2012 documentary involving mistakenly incarcerated teens in Central Park Five, prompting a further delving into possibly how many kids have had their lives shattered by a mishap of identity.  Not all can get Hollywood backs like the West Memphis Three, the one thing that stings West of Memphis the film is the plugging away by the distracting sights of famous faces-- Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins and producer Peter Jackson all commit to on-camera PR work.

However, what does hold is everlasting appeal and power of this case, and as four movies, countless books, articles and etc. unfurl, it continues to be ever changing.  A document of fluid and on going history, and a case of trial and errors.  Just as the three teenagers themselves were branded as culprits due to image, Paradise Lost made a similar assumption of one of the victim's stepfathers named John Mark Byers-- a sinister looking Southern Bible Belter, neglecting-- just as everyone else another choice in Terry Hobbs, West of Memphis' assumption of the real killer due to recently re-examined DNA evidence and a hodgepodge of stories that don't add up.  The victory of the films puzzle resolves in the three teenagers, lives ruined and soiled in prison, were granted freedom on a peculiar stance of time served due to new evidence, without being exonerated.

What's left, and what's puzzling and what may indeed take a few more movies to unravel in this ever-changing case is that grand stance of finality and closure.  Until then, Berg's West of Memphis must settle for being a hell of good film.  B+

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