Sundance 2012 Review: WEST OF MEMPHIS

Festivals Editor; Los Angeles, California (@RylandAldrich)
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Sundance 2012 Review: WEST OF MEMPHIS

Our sincere thanks to Andy Jurgensen for his review of Amy Berg's documentary and comparison to the documentary trilogy by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.

In 1994, Damian Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were tried and convicted in a West Memphis court of the murder of Steven Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore. The trial was a sensational one, with prosecutors claiming that Echols was a Satan worshiper and with the help of Misskelley and Baldwin, tortured and killed the young boys in a ritualistic rage. Only teenagers, Misskelley and Baldwin received life sentences and Echols was given the death penalty. In the subsequent 18 years since their lockup, there has been a growing support around the three men, with many doubting the evidence provided by local law enforcement and questioning whether the right killers are behind bars. Amy Berg's West of Memphis, the latest documentary to chronicle this trial and aftermath, is a comprehensive and worthy analysis of police and court injustice and charts the emotional journey of those dedicated to Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin's eventual release.

The young mens' story was first brought to the public eye by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, whose Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills aired on HBO in 1996 and cast initial doubts about the young men's guilt. Since that film, Berlinger and Sinofsky have made two well executed follow-up docs (the latest, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, premiered at film festivals late last year and is nominated for best doc at this year's Oscars). West of Memphis doesn't ignore the existence of these films and actually credits them for sparking the global "Save the West Memphis Three" movement and acquiring the high profile financial support of celebrities such as Peter Jackson & Fran Walsh (both producers on this film), Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, Johnny Depp and others.

It's important to note that West of Memphis is not a rehash, but rather, a fresh and more informed perspective on what has become quite a contentious story. Berg doesn't dwell on the minutiae of the original trial (which Paradise Lost 1 did so well) and moves fairly quickly into the legal team's exhaustive effort to reexamine all the evidence of the case. What they find is pretty astounding: two instances of false testimony, multiple signs of coerced confession and misinterpretation of "satanic" mutilation of the victims' bodies. The most shocking revelation comes via new forensic testing that finds no traces of DNA from Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley at the crime scene but points to a new suspect in Terry Hobbs, stepfather of victim Steven Branch.

With this new piece of the puzzle, the second part of the film expertly focuses on building the case against Hobbs. Much of the first two Paradise Lost films pointed suspicions on the boisterous Mark Byers, stepfather of victim Chris Byers, without any hard evidence except for his wild and vindictive demeanor played out in front of their cameras. Berg is somewhat critical of their initial accusations and backs up her argument against Hobbs with a questionable alibi and stories of prior abuse. Additionally, sworn testimony from witnesses conducted two weeks before the Sundance premiere claim Hobbs's nephew told them that Terry killed the two boys and it is the "Hobbs family secret."

As the team prepares to appeal to the Arkansas supreme court and retry the case in light of DNA evidence, the film introduces us to Lorri Davis, a NY woman who started writing letters to Damian Echols back in 1996 and has since dedicated her life to the mens' freedom, and Pam Hobbs, Steven Branch's mother who reveals her doubts that the West Memphis Three are the real killers. The journey of these two women provide an emotional backbone to the film without overshadowing its mission.

One of the more interesting parts of the film for me was the unexpected final chapter, where current West Memphis prosecutor Scott Ellington offers Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin immediate freedom in exchange for admitting guilt to first-degree murder (in the form of Alford pleas). Always claiming their innocence, it is a heart-wrenching decision. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which was initially completed before this surprise development, later tacked on an epilogue that informs well enough but is not as satisfying as it could have been. Because of Berg's access, West of Memphis provides a real play-by-play of the inner turmoil the three men go through to accept a plea deal, especially that of Jason Baldwin. Their release is bittersweet and an on-camera interview Berg conducts with Ellington prove that politics and attitudes have not changed in West Memphis.

Clocking in at 150 minutes, West of Memphis leaves no stone unturned and proves to be a significant and impassioned companion piece to the HBO documentary trilogy. With the exception of a few sound bites from Echols in prison, Berg chooses not to interview Misskelley or Baldwin until after they are eventually released. It's a bold but effective choice as we see the three men adjust to life on the outside and attempt to put this nightmare behind them. With a scripted movie in the works (set to star Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon) and the ultimate fate of Hobbs in limbo, this isn't the last we'll hear of this tragic tale.

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Amy BergBilly McMillinMichael BadenJason BaldwinHolly BallardJamie Clark BallardDocumentaryCrime

More about West of Memphis

jaguar3000February 4, 2012 8:58 AM

Interesting article. I saw "Purgatory" earlier this year and didn't know that other documentary films on the case existed, apart from the "Paradise Lost" serie. Meanwhile, a lot of evidence is pointing at Terry Hobbs but I'll doubt they'll be able to convict him or even make a decent try. For the state, it seems the case is closed with this strange final verdict. Let's see.

There might be a little error in the text: In the paragraph starting "With this new piece of puzzle", shouldn't it be "case against Hobbs"? ("Branch" is his stepson's name.) And in the last sentence in that paragraph, "Hobb's nephew" instead of "Branch's nephew"?

jaguar3000February 4, 2012 9:03 AM

Hm, just check the paragraph again and am a bit confused now:
"Branch's nephew told them that Steven killed the two boys and it is the "Branch family secret."

So not Hobbs would be the murderer but actually one of the boys himself?? Or should "Steven" be "Terry" and two should be three? Or Steven killed the two boys and Terry killed Steven???

AnnieFebruary 4, 2012 12:42 PM

The article misattributes - wherever you see "Branch" (except in reference to victim Stevie Branch) read "Hobbs." So the film reports the friends' disclosure that Michael Hobbs, Jr., talked about the "Hobbs family secret." It is NOT insinuated that Stevie, the 8 year old victim, had ANYTHING to do with the crime.

andyjurgensenFebruary 4, 2012 1:39 PM

Thank you both. All mention of Branch in the fourth paragraph should be attributed to Hobbs. This has been updated in the article. As Annie states, Stevie did not have anything to do with the crime.

CritiquerFebruary 9, 2012 12:36 PM

Cannot figure out how the rest of us are going to see this, been teased enough, are they going to rental? Theaters? I also am a bit leery of anything that starts out with a premise (stepdad), then pigeonholes all info into the theory to the exclusion of conflicting evidence.

That being said, those of us who were there in the 90's, remember the atmosphere of "satanism under every rock", (Bob Larson anyone? Johanna Michaelson? McMartin preschool?), and I knew the McMartins, they were persecuted not prosecuted, parents were sent home with flyers, (please ask your child about any crimes that may have happened),kids were interviewed with leading questions by shrinks AFTER the parents went on their own "investigations".
All that to say I get where it would be very easy to convince any jury, in that area, in that time period , of just about anything, but I know the Purgatory's at the same time, just like the McMartin parents, started with a premise then sought to prove it.

Still don't think the boys did it, not convinced of stepdad either. Teenage boys in the 80's-90's just weren't that sophisticated, this was pre-internet, one didn't look up bomb recipes on Youtube, text buddies to plan a sophisticated murder, or get step by step instructions on satanic rituals on their Iphones. Do stupid, insane crazy weird rebellious stuff?, hell yeah. Murder in cold blood 3 boys from the area? Inconceivable.