It’s difficult to imagine that Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s massively comprehensive docu-trilogy about the infamous West Memphis Three case, Paradise Lost, could be topped as far as fastidiousness and sheer detail goes. The entire, near 7-hour saga began as a somewhat ambiguous depiction of the Three, a group of young men who were convicted of murdering three children in Arkansas in 1993, but by its final entry, had become the grandest cinematic indictment of the justice system since Errol Morris’ sublime The Thin Blue Line. Here Amy J. Berg (Deliver Us From Evil) proves there’s merit in another take on the story, even if West of Memphis struggles to compete with Berlinger and Sinofsky’s grand opus.
What’s clear from minute one is that Berg’s film – produced by Peter Jackson, a passionate follower of the case – benefits from much higher production values than the Paradise Lost films; a haunting score backs the visuals, which are themselves uniformly cinematic, beautifully lensed and adding to the hauntingly bleak quality that the scenario invites. While the sheer battery of names that inundates the viewer from minute one will likely seem disorientating to the uninitiated, the film will no doubt appeal most to those who have only a cursory knowledge of the case and having seen the other films on the subject. That said, Berg’s film does a few things better, specifically how it better establishes the geography of the murder, and goes into even further detail about the graphic detail of the murder, horrific though it is – if never exploitative.
Also, looking at Paradise Lost from a distance, Berg is easier able to establish the worldwide cultural context of the case; giving a nod – and then a sly backhand – to Berlinger and Sinofsky’s films, as well as the book Devil’s Knot and the WM3 benefit concert held for the three. In fact, some of the more moving moments come from the celebrity faces voicing their concerns, particularly Henry Rollins, who aptly surmises that “this could have been me”, given the tarring of the three suspects with the brush of Satanism. Further detail is also gone into about the aspect of police corruption, the poisonous effect of the case on those on the sidelines – specifically a tragic portion featuring one of the victim’s sisters, who has become a junkie – and as stands as quite the coup, Berg even briefly speaks to one of the jurors on the case, yet strangely does so only briefly. Those who saw West of Memphis at Sundance were reportedly stunned when new witnesses – interviewed mere days before the film’s premier – reveal damning information that indicates the identity of the actual killer, yet its stunning effect is not diluted close to a year later, knowing that this man, if he did do it, is walking around free.
Perhaps stronger than anything else, though, is the broader picture painted, of the confusion on both sides of the fence; the insatiable quest for answers and closure that today still rages fervently. Furthermore, the crude administration of justice shown here is, of course, not justice at all; the various motivations and moving parts has created an unfortunate mess in which the wrong men were convicted, and the circumstances through which they were eventually released reeks of authoritative arrogance and little else. This, combined with the clear assertion that three young men essentially lost what are considered to be the best years in many lives, is supremely tragic, and in light of their release, enormously affecting; the catharsis felt at film’s close exceeds most fictional narratives, even if that catharsis is uneasy given the circumstances. If nothing else, you’ll be sure to appreciate your freedom a tad more.
As in the Paradise Lost films, the finger of blame is inevitably pointed at someone else – Terry Hobbes, a father of one of the murdered children. However, the seemingly deliberate elision of a key fact – that a piece of hair found at the crime scenes matches Hobbes, but also matches a small amount of the population at large – makes the hypothesis feel manipulative, especially given the case against Hobbes is compelling as it stands. It’s a small but significant flaw, even if it does raise the film’s most salient point, that Hobbes urgently needs to be deposed if anyone in the bureaucracy can be bothered to dig back into such a controversial and contentious case.
Though it will seem a little excessive to those well-steeped in this story, to the uninitiated, it will doubtless be a thoroughly absorbing and emotional sit, ably reining the lengthy runtime of the trilogy into something more accessible and easily digestible. West of Memphis is less comprehensive and more manipulative than the Paradise Lost films, but a thoroughly engaging condensation of the facts nonetheless.
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