‘West of Memphis’: a devastating walk-through of murder case
A review of Amy Berg’s “West of Memphis,” a devastating walk-through of the flawed prosecution of the West Memphis Three.
Seattle Times movie critic
‘West of Memphis,’ a documentary by Amy Berg. 146 minutes. Rated R for disturbing violent content and some language. Guild 45th.
Amy Berg’s thoughtful “West of Memphis” is a real-life horror story, made no less shocking by the familiarity of its early scenes. Those who saw the “Paradise Lost” documentaries, or have read recent developments on the case, know of the West Memphis Three: a trio of teenagers who, in 1993, were accused of murdering three little boys in West Memphis, Ark. Despite a lack of physical evidence, they were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms; one to Death Row.
The case caught the public eye, and after years of pressure by supporters who pointed to new evidence and flawed conclusions at the trials, the three were finally released in 2011, under a complex arrangement through which they maintained innocence but pleaded guilty. Berg, an Oscar-nominated documentarian for “Deliver Us from Evil,” quickly and meticulously sketches in the early details of the story, then gets to the heart of “West of Memphis”: a devastating walk-through of the flaws at the basis of the prosecution’s case.
We see several witnesses admitting that they lied at the trial; hear forensic experts explaining how a knife presented by the prosecution could not have been used in the murders; watch as investigators demonstrate that the mutilation to the children’s bodies (supposedly evidence of occult involvement by the murderer) was in all likelihood caused by large turtles in the creek in which they were found. And, most damning, we hear the case against the stepfather of one of the children, whose DNA was found at the murder scene and whose history of violent and erratic behavior would seem to make him a prime suspect — but who has never been officially investigated.
It isn’t easy to watch “West of Memphis,” and one could argue with Berg’s choice to show (in most cases, very briefly) crime-scene photos of the bodies. But this is, rightly, an angry film, and the three men’s eventual freedom came at a terrible cost. “West of Memphis” doesn’t forget that this story has many victims — and that somewhere, a killer walks free. It ends on the faces of three little boys who died before their ninth birthdays,
on a phone number that still can be called by anyone with information on
the case, and on the words “Information is justice.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org