The murder of the children should be the most disturbing thing. But for many viewers, that isn't the case in the four films chronicling the arrest, conviction, and 18-year incarceration of Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin for a crime they didn't commit.
The crime-scene photos of three young boys killed in 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas, are, of course, harrowing, as is footage of the parents shattered by the loss. The moment that most haunted me in West of Memphis, however, is not of physical brutality.
It comes near the end of the film. Outside a courthouse in 2011, John Mark Byers, the adoptive father of one of the slain boys, awaits news of the fate of the West Memphis Three, the young men wrongly convicted of the murders. Byers, like many who have seen Paradise Lost (1996) and its sequels, is now convinced that the three are, in fact, innocent. This is a breakthrough. In the original Paradise Lost, he fulminated against Echols and company with the theatrical zeal of a born preacher. He had been caught up with the certainty that had turned the media and judicial apparatuses of Arkansas against the then-teenagers: that the murders had been ritualistic, and that the guilt must lie in these misfits who wore black and loved heavy metal.
Byers had kept it up in Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, the 2000 sequel to Paradise Lost, even as the scrutiny of filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky and their audience now fell on him. In an ignoble twist, some of those outraged that the three had been railroaded were now suggesting that circumstantial evidence actually pointed to weird, thundering Byers as the murderer.
After investing millions to re-examine the case, the team behind the new West of Memphis has dismissed that possibility, and Byers himself seems shaken to have been publicly accused. So it's especially upsetting when we see him, outside that courthouse, once again moved to denounce a neighbor as a "child killer." This time, it's Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of another of the victims and — to the West of Memphis investigators — what the cops might call "a person of interest."
Based on the evidence presented in West of Memphis, it's impossible to know right now whether Hobbs committed the murders. But one thing is certain: Byers is evidence that some people never, ever learn. To accuse wrongly, then be wrongly accused, and then to find the confidence to shout accusations yet again — this is stunning, and not in the way that film reviewers who like to get quoted in ads so often misapply that word. This is a movie that can stun you.
Director Amy Berg and her investigators argue only that Hobbs should be subjected to serious police scrutiny. In doing so, though, West of Memphis pretty thoroughly shames him. Berg's aggressive team — funded by producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh — finagles a sample of Hobbs' DNA, which turns out to match a hair found at the crime scene. They record his phone calls to a friend; they get neighbors to poke holes in his alibi and family members to accuse him of abuse.
When Hobbs sues Dixie Chick Natalie Maines for stating that he should be considered a suspect, Maines' attorneys and Berg's investigators arrange to get Hobbs into court and under oath — and then sandbag him with questions about the case and his own history of violence. Hobbs' deposition — seen at length in the film — is wrenching. We watch this tight-lipped, poker-faced man realize that he's overmatched and then swallow back rage as he's made to account, publicly, for the darkest moments of his life.
But proving Hobbs is a son of a bitch doesn't prove he's a murderer. The movie is more certain when retelling the facts of the West Memphis Three case and walking us through the filmmakers' own investigation. (Unlike the episodic Paradise Lost films, this one covers the saga in its entirety; newcomers will be able to follow everything.) New DNA evidence establishes that there is no connection between the West Memphis Three and the slain boys. Testimony from the original trials is recanted; forensics experts demonstrate that the "ritualistic" mutilation of the corpses almost certainly was nature having its way. Meanwhile, we catch up with charismatic Damien Echols, the alleged ringleader who spent much of his adult life in solitary confinement, and Echols' wife, Lorri Davis, who, for most of the film, has never seen him outside prison. She reads from his love letters, including a delicious one that quotes from The Master and Margarita. We also meet the families, celebrity supporters Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins, and the throngs of supporters who have made this case into a movement.
Exhausting, thorough, and sharply crafted, West of Memphis is more a work of advocacy than of journalism. As such, it has been uncommonly effective. In 2011, the Berg/Jackson/Walsh investigation led to the release of Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin — but, in another ignoble twist, not their exoneration. (Terrible ol' Arkansas still considers them guilty.)
That makes this the most rare of films: one that indisputably matters.
And one that stuns. One of many questions to brood on here is that of what we should most fear. Is it the possibility of the from-nowhere violence that stole the lives of the three young boys in 1993? Or the possibility that everything that we should be able to trust in this society might be mobilized to take away innocent lives in retaliation — in this case, in a monolithic effort involving law enforcement, the courts, a grieving community, and TV vultures like Geraldo Rivera, who had for years made a profitable racket out of warning Americans that satanists were after its babies? What is more terrifying: killers or accusers?