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TIFF '12: 'West Of Memphis' Finds New Spaces In Well-Covered Territory

Sep 7, 2012

The story of the Arkansas murder trials of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley — the men known as the "West Memphis Three" — has already been the topic of the three well-known documentaries in the Paradise Lost series made for HBO by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Those films, in fact, helped the case come to the attention of many of the people whose work ultimately resulted in the three defendants' release from prison in 2011.

Now, there's another documentary, West Of Memphis, which doesn't come from the Paradise Lost team, but from a team led by director Amy Berg and by producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who are probably best-known for their work on the Lord Of The Rings films. Jackson and Walsh contributed substantial financial support to the investigation of the case before the men were released, and they, along with Echols and his wife Lorri Davis, are the production team here.

It's not unkind, I don't think, to wonder, as I think many probably will: Did a fourth documentary about this case particularly need making when it's probably had one of the most thorough and well-received documentary filmmaking treatments of any criminal case not involving a politician or a celebrity?

The answer is a little complicated. With most films, it's unfair to consider them primarily as they relate to ones that have already been made, but it seems self-evident that the ripest audience for West Of Memphis will be the many people who have eagerly followed this case all along.

It's impossible to begrudge Echols, in particular, the desire to tell the story as part of a project he has some control over. He is, after all, the one who was on death row. You can't very well say to anyone, "Well, your telling of your tale is now redundant, because other people have already told it."

At the same time, there's no denying that for people who have seen the Paradise Lost films or even read Mara Leveritt's 2002 book Devil's Knot, a lot of this material will be familiar, and that's a tough go in a movie that's two and a half hours long. Just to orient people who may not have seen the earlier films, Berg naturally has to spend substantial time just explaining what the case is, who the victims were, how the men were convicted in the first place, and what efforts followed to overturn their convictions. Even Paradise Lost 3, which came more than ten years after Paradise Lost 2, repeated a lot of information to bring people up to speed; West Of Memphis has to now repeat some of that same storytelling yet again.

Despite those problems, there are a couple of reasons the film has its own contributions to make. Perhaps the biggest is that Paradise Lost 3 was essentially finished and about to be shown at last year's Toronto International Film Festival when the men were released from prison. Footage telling the story of their release — the ending of a filmmaking project that by then had been going on for 20 years — had to be added just a couple of weeks before the premiere. Necessarily, the story of the deal being done is brief in Paradise Lost 3.

West Of Memphis, in its final 25 minutes or so, gives a more thorough accounting of how the deal that freed the three was ultimately done, and in particular, lingers on the difficulties that Baldwin faced in deciding whether to plead guilty to something he has always insisted he didn't do in order to get himself out of jail — and in order to ensure Echols wouldn't be executed. After spending 20 years in prison, the idea of refusing an offer that would get you out is more than many of us can wrap our heads around, but as it's explained here, his hesitation seems quite logical.

This film is also more emphatic than Paradise Lost 3 in proposing a suspect other than those who were convicted. Specifically, it pretty firmly accuses Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murdered boys, whose DNA, defense witnesses were prepared to testify, was found at the crime scene in the form of a hair that was inside one of the knots tying up one of the boys. Now, proposing an alternate suspect is a tricky topic for Sinofsky and Berlinger, because Paradise Lost 2 fairly firmly — though largely as a matter of powerful insinuation — accused John Mark Byers, the father of a different one of the murdered boys. That he was guilty is not a theory that the bulk of the supporters of Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley believe anymore, and Paradise Lost 3 retreats from it.

While the evidence against Hobbs is certainly discussed in Paradise Lost 3, it's not really possible for the people most well-known for presenting one theory of the case that's now been largely cast aside to be the best ones to credibly present another theory of the case. In fact, as someone says in West Of Memphis, some of the thinking that made people suspicious of Byers — he was just theatrically unsettling, among other things — isn't entirely unlike what made people suspect Damien Echols. So if you want to hear the Hobbs theory more fully aired than it's been up to this point, that happens here too.

And finally, Lorri Davis is a bigger presence in this film than in the Paradise Lost films, and the work that she did on the case is a bigger part of the story. Sinofsky and Berlinger were always more interested in the case itself; West Of Memphis is also the story of the people who turned themselves inside out working on it. It's very difficult for a lot of people to understand what would make a woman marry a man who was a prison inmate, and for people who are interested in the case, this is a closer look at how she works and how she sees her unconventional marriage, which only recently came to include being able to freely touch her husband.

In addition to the prolific documentary filmmaking surrounding this case, there's an upcoming scripted adaptation of Devil's Knot as well, starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth. For the time being, while West Of Memphis won't surprise anyone who's followed the case, it does play its own role, particularly in illuminating how unsatisfying the end of the story really was.

West Of Memphis opens in the United States on December 25, 2012.

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