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West of Memphis

Director: Amy Berg
Cast: Damien Wayne Echols, Lorri Davis, John Mark Byers, Pam Hobbs, Henry Rollins, Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley

(Sony Pictures Classics; US theatrical: 25 Dec 2012 (Limited release); 2012)

Pressing So Hard

 
I don’t look so sharp.
Now I got a heavy heart.
It’s just a low rent payin’, palpitating, pump inside my shirt.
And there’s a weight that is pressing so hard.
God it hurts.
—Supersuckers, “Heavy Heart”


“It’s more of my life than I would like it to be,” admits John Fogleman, former Crittenden County deputy prosecuting attorney, “because frankly, I’d like to not have those three eight-year-old boys’ pictures in my mind.” The pictures he means are grisly, three eight-year-old boys left naked, tied up, and dead near a creek in Robin Hood Hills, West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993. Almost before the brutal loss of Stevie Edward Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore could sink in for the small rural community, police quickly named three suspects, teenagers Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin; prosecutors went on to argue the murders were part of a Satanic ritual.


The case basics are introduced in Amy Berg’s West of Memphis, which focuses more of its energy and time on the legal wrangling that followed, much of it chronicled previously and at length by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost trilogy. The new documentary focuses more specifically on the work of a legal team starting in 2007, to free the West Memphis Three (in this it includes credited footage from Berlinger and Sinofsky’s films), as well as the diligent efforts by Echols’ wife Lorri Davis, who provides the film—opening 25 December in select theaters—with an effective emotional center. 


A producer here, along with Echols, Peter Jackson, and Fran Walsh, Davis walks viewers through her experience, beginning with artifacts that include the 5000 letters and hundreds of books she and Echols exchanged over the 18 years he was on death row. She began writing to Echols, she says, after she saw the first Paradise Lost in 1996 and felt an immediate outrage: “You see the film,” she says, “And you get the feeling that something has gone wrong. They don’t have the right people in prison.” Moreover, she felt a connection. “To hear Damien talk in that film,” she says, “He sounded so much like myself.” West of Memphis follows her changed life, her decision to move from New York to Little Rock, her efforts to raise money and awareness, her collaborations with celebrities like Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp, as well as the efforts of so many attorneys and investigators who took up the case once it became known, through the earlier documentaries, numerous news stories, and an energetic, sustained internet campaign.


Where the Paradise Lost trilogy pursued the case as it happened, Berg’s film revisits information since revealed or rejected, and so reassembles the storyline from a position looking back. As West of Memphis recounts, the case involved more stifling of “the truth and the reality” that might once have emerged in Arkansas, as well as Misskelley’s coerced confession. The film rehearses the state’s resistance to consider new evidence or to acknowledge its original cases were flawed, a story of Davis’ heroic dedication, framed by contextual news footage and encouraging emails from Fran Walsh. And so, along with Davis, the film also features interviews with three key players from 1993, namely, Pam Hicks (formerly Pam Hobbs, the mother of Stevie Branch) and John Mark Byers (stepfather to Christopher). Byers is also featured prominently in the last Paradise Lost film, in which he repudiated and apologized for his previous assertions of Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley’s guilt.


Here Byers reconfirms his suspicions concerning Terry Hobbs, Pam’s ex-husband and Stevie Branch’s stepfather. The film pursues these suspicions, interviewing people who knew Terry then, and including old television interviews with Terry and also pieces of his frankly disturbing deposition from 2009, taken when he sued Natalie Maines for defamation. As Pam recalls here, “He was confident that he was gonna win and he was gonna get millions of dollars.”


That didn’t happen. But here the deposition makes Terry look shifty and awkward, now aspects that, combined with other witnesses’ memories of his abusiveness and cruelty, is troubling. A new interview with a friend of Hobbs’ son, now grown up and describing what sound like damning statements by Terry. The film’s critique of police and prosecutors isn’t quite so devastating as that of the last Paradise Lost film, but the point is clear enough. West of Memphis is less concerned with doing the work that police should do or should have done than with showing the profound effects of the errors—whether inadvertent or purposeful—on Echols, MIsskelley, and Baldwin, and their families. As valiant as the correction efforts have been, and despite the release of these particular victims, West of Memphis never loses sight of the fact that legal systems can go so terribly wrong, in so many ways.


That said, it also focuses on the new possibilities for Lorri and Damien, following the West Memphis Three’s last court appearance, when they took an Alford Plea in order to leave prison, and also allow the state not to take responsibility for its decades of mistakes. It’s surely an imperfect solution, as Baldwin especially argues, but it does lead to the next step. “I think we all had our mental image of what this was gonna be at the end, these three guys walking out of prison exonerated,” says Lorri as the film shows her and Damien on sidewalks and in sunshine. It’s a simple but extraordinary scene, after all the years the three spent imagining it.

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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